On That Very Uncomfortable Edge: An Interview with Alan Sondheim

Publication Type:

Journal Article


The Arts Journal (1989)






Alan Sondheim - writer, teacher, curator, filmmaker, musician and contemporary art theorist - first came to the Southeastern U.S. in 1983 as curator for Atlantaメs Nexus Contemporary Art Center, a position which he held for two years. From 1986 through 1987 he taught at the University of Texas in Dallas, and last year he served as artistic director of Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo, New York. Recently returned to the Southeast, Sondheim is again living in Atlanta, and is presently teaching courses in contemporary art issues at the Atlanta College of Art and Wester Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. His work has been widely exhibited, performed and published, and his new book, Disorders of the Real, was recently issued by Station Hill Press.

The following interview with Sondheim, in which he addresses a broad range of art-related issues, was conducted in February at Western Carolina University. Leonard Seastone A WCU instructor and book
artist, also participated in the dialog.

*Youメve mentioned your early interest in anthropology.*

I began as an anthropology major at Brown University and switched to English. But Iメve remained interested in ethnographic materials.

*My question has to do with whether your current investigations in your art and writing are sparked by your previous interest in anthropology.*

This is a difficult question because it is to do with what is meant by anthropology. I think the work, the writing, embodies an anthropology, but I donメt think itメs anthropology in the sense of a formative
science relating specifically to the traditional モanthropological field.ヤ But itメs an anthropology in the sense that itメs a returning to or a compression of writing of theory upon the body, and upon its humanness, and upon the formation of languages within the body.

*In terms of your background in literature, what are some of the factors which caused you to rethink issues and subsequently develop a bridge between art and writing?*

Itメs a kind of general praxis that Iメm engaged in, that someone will see as one medium or another but which I see as much more coherent, a kind of investigation. In literature, Iメm still interested in a certain type of symptomatic writing. For example, Thomas Chatterton, a poet born in 1752, who killed himself at the age of 17 - was writing in the 18th century in what he considered 14th century verse. I found that as interesting and peculiar as the work of John Clare, a モpeasant-poetヤ perhaps, who wound up in an asylum in the 19th cntury. Gertrude Steinメs work is another example... But I also include ethnographic writings, which is where my anthropological interest is foregrounded - in other words, returning to the old Smithsonian Institute Bureau of American Ethnology reports on the Kwakiutl and Haida, for example.

*Keith Waldrop wrote he considers you an art maniac poised to meet the world in as many ways as possible. How do you account for what I would call a restless invstigation of matrix beyond what youメve referred to
as working from the notion of a general praxis?*

I think it is a restless investigation and an investigation of restlessness. Itメs working across two areas. First, there is a sort of discursivity モaroundヤ film. In other words, making film, talking film, thinking film, looking at film, working film theory, theory - film, and so forth - and also working in photography or video as offspring of film. Then itメs also centered around writing and the problems of writing. But what Iメm trying not to do with writing is to focus on it as one discourse among others, which has to be focused on, because thatメs what Iメm doing. In other words, I want to avoid the idea that one is doing painting about painting because one paints. I donメt want that self-referentiality, so Iメm continually breaking it down.

*In your Disorders of the Real, the introduction gives the reader instruction regarding the concept of モplace.ヤ*

Thatメs Tom Zummerメs introduction, I didnメt write it. There is deliberate unclarity here. I donメt mean itメs confusing, but that a certain kind of structure is broken down, the way that sections are run together - some titled, some untitled; the spacing in the book is designed to create something which is not fragmentary, in the sense of piece/fragment, piece/fragment, etc., but instead problematizes even that - so that the organization of the book as a whole is questioned, questionable. But you were saying something about the word モplace.ヤ

*Yes, just that the metaphor of モplaceヤ seems to be important to you on some level. Is モplaceヤ sort of a key word?*

Itメs not a key word for me, but probably more so for Zummer and his questioning of the book. By questioning the place of writing, what Iメm attempting to do is not work through a certain kind of metaphysics or foundation-analysis of writing, but to question the place of the subject, the reader, or to question the readerメs place. The text works at cross-purposes with itself. I started that actually in the book Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America that I edited for Dutton, where I did an introduction that was deliberately contradictory and designed to be a clue, a theatrical cueing device for the artists represented in it. But it was also designed to efface/negate itself as any kind of formal articulation of that notion of an モintroductionヤ as something that might appropriate or tell the reader what these people are really モabout.ヤ

*Do you have an equivalent form, say in your filmmaking or music?*

Yes, the filmwork does that a great deal, and more directly. I use sexual elements in the film, for example, or narrative elements - both of which place the reader in one or another state. Sexuality provides either arousal or disgust, depending on the viewer. The narrative elements will carry the viewer through. They create a certain momentum working off his or her memory. The narrative elements are constantly short-circuited as well, or deconstructed, so that the viewer always モcollapses.ヤ There is this continual sense of collapse in my work which is very deliberate. I made video years ago, and I said before I showed them (at one screening) that these particular works were failures, that I saw them as failures, and I wanted to discuss this because I thought they way they failed was more interesting than what I thought of as more successful tapes. Itメs a kind of effacement and certain sort of horizon. Itメs playing it both ways, at the same time problematizing all sorts of discourses on power and quality, on the nature of the medium, on the cultural construction of the viewer. It places a kind of paralysis there.

*Could you state your theory of deconstruction?*

I donメt claim to be a deconstructionist. I see my work more as a form of stuttering or lapsing into what I call idle conversation, relating to the notion of das Mann in Heidegger, a sort of everydayness that descends into (subversive) substance. I use that notion of substance or triviality, or awkwardness, as a way of creating a turn that doesnメt come home to itself. But itメs not really deconstruction (in the sense of Derrida); itメs not using the formal devices of frameworking employed there. It doesnメt examine the curlicues of the text, although I might do that on occasion, and for the purposes of deconstruction.

*How would you sum up your work at this point?*

Iメm interested in work that is troubling and work that creates a sense of criticality in the viewer, possibly in myself, but definitely in relationship to herself/himself, as a type of critique developing out of the work. A lot of people find my films in a sense not films, or my writing, not writing. I want to keep operating on that very uncomfortable edge, because only there can one look back and against culture. [...]

*I find you as both a cynic and a romantic, and as both a voyeur and an exhibitionist.*

I would buy into the last two because of the kind of dialectics of sight occurring. A lot of my very recent work is the literal deconstruction of romanticism. But I donメt buy into cynicism. I buy more into an unalterable sadness. I donメt buy into cynicism because I donメt think my work has that kind of irony. I feel that there is too much at stake. I have always been interested in what I call モfoundation work,ヤ relating especially to the sciences, artificial intelligence, or propositional logic. How the world is organized; how sentences are organized; how the モtruth valueヤ of sentences is determined; how the value of truth itself is determined. This brings all sorts of theory into play, from Saul Kripkeメs back through Wittggensteinメs and Russellメs. You may not notice it in the writing, but there is a scientific edge there. I worked off catastrophe theories for example in trying to describe the way certain logical functions behave. Iメm also interested in Kristevaメs Revolution in Poetic Language, the origin of semiosis in general. I donメt want to slide into humanism on one hand, or into concepts of substance, materialism, or material substance on the other. Itメs a very peculiar realm, but how much can you scrape away? I talk about the notion of inscription, of how the ego is not really a structure but a coagulation, a disorderly appropriating structure. These モcoagulationsヤ are linguistic in nature, somewhat in the process of organizing, operating by inscribing. They inscribe the
environment. They project, introject.

*What about your work in terms of the written word being spoken?*

When I do a reading or lecture I try to make the reading occur as a speaking, because if I do otherwise, it wonメt be understood, and thereメs really no reason for that speaking body to be there. Thatメs why my films are jammed with texts. The textual element is critical; the scripts are designed to be repeated over and over again. Phrases will be repeated that build up a certain rhythm in relation to the film, that the film will either fortify, reinforce, or subvert. I wouldnメt try to read one of my technical pieces. Every text I do, I think will literally be my last, since I want every text to resonate with every other and to embody every other. In a way this makes the writing quite dense; it also makes it モEuropean.ヤ Itメs more engaged stylistically with people like Theodor Adorno, or Jabes, or Maurice Blanchot, or Derrida, than itメs engaged with American writers such as Marvin Minsky or Noam Chomsky. Itメs as if Iメm engaging these European thinkers as opposed to working off them (although of course the engagement is inauthentic, one-way). Itメs very difficult then for my writing to be a speaking thing. When I do speak, I generally tend to go somewhat into humor, relating, on the surface, to what Iメm writing.

*Do you withold information?*

The writing attempts to say everything - and also - and this is where my exhibitionism comes in - to expose everything, the body in its entirety, the psychology/psychoanalytics as well, so that everything appears like a microscopic sectioning. So again the authority is reduced because there are no secrets. Itメs not like I have an authority or knowledge that you donメt have, but itメs that the knowledge is the position of the body. But again the contents of the work is not the phenomenology of the body or its effacement, as much as it is
everything else as well.

*In terms of art criticism, where do you position yourself?*

I donメt see myself as an art critic; itメs not a professional concern of mine. Itメs a very hard question. The criticism that interests me most is art criticism of the very, very old-fashioned kind which talks about the life and personality of the artist and then talks about how the work came out of that, etc. In this manner I might gain some idea, say, of 19th-century Japanese prints. What Iメve tried to do in writing art criticism is to collapse the notion of art-history in the first place, because I see this as a product of a mindset related to a late-19th-century materialist ethnography isolating one particular sort of cultural object, presenting it as if it exists within a formal seriation. Iメm uncomfortable with art history, which Iメve written against, at least this version of it. I donメt know what the point of モgoing throughヤ these histories of material objects really mounts to, except a certain preservation of culture, as revealed in these objects - art- works as infinitely dense semiotic emissions, so to speak. But I tend to see art as a whole as a discursive formation, one that expands in a number of different ways, through different demographics, classes, different levels of institutionalized or informal educations.

Robert Godfrey, a painter and critic, is head of the Department of Art at Western Carolina University.


The dawn rises in the form of a cylinder, which is bent or deformed as one approaches a lip. The dawn ends when the lip transforms into a singularity, the corruption of a maniacal source of light, a point disrupting the flat planes of the sky. (These are the words of the solitary traveller against the caress of the forest. I suppose one might as well mention the hermit or peasant, other romantic types who would never dream of entering into the equation. Besides, I have never seen one.)

Clearly, what begins, begins in its absence.

I want to describe dawns.

The darkness, congratulatory in its completeness, possesses an almost incomprehensible flattening; one could hardly call it a glimmer. Forests and isolated houses pass by, sensed more than seen in the penumbra of the luminous edges of the headlights. The sound is a continuous tubular environment of the asphalt and its momentary enlightenments.

Something was visible, unmitigated, out of the corner of the eye, parabolic, near the horizon, invisible once again as soon as it was named. The periphery turns over in its sleeplessness. The apprehension of the forest continues and continues without a sense of distance or the pleasure of language.

A sound placed itself in my presence.

The slight paleness and its increasing flattened the depth of the stars, which could never compete for attention against the purples and other shades staging the withdrawal of the concretion of the dark, its
heavy substance present down to the finest details, the gravels by the side of the road.

The dawns of being whimpered as I turned slowly in the vehicle, then descended once again into apparent invisibility and absence altogether; the world fluttered at this stage in the beginnings of languages not yet organized into gestures and cries.

The heavy drapery is silent and still, beginning its own pathway to dissolution, as if the heaviness of clouds were slowly lifted in its place. The plane of the parabola has given way to a translucent pastiness insistent on its penetration of the sky now defined as eastern. Stars have disappeared across the incoherent bands of light coming to life in the forms of the planet.

The constancy of the tires within the great and buckling cylinder of the heavens was forgotten as the spectacle increased its presence almost everywhere; the great firs of the forest extended their fractured daggers into the body of the sky after so many hours.

The lip began its curling inward, fast and furious at its disturbance, as if an uncanny presence were just below the crumbling horizon. Something enormous commenced its uneasy journey, dragging language with it, struggling to free itself - an enormous convexity thrusting through Dawns, opening the spoken word to the labia of the formation of syllables, whole phrases carrying the presence and pleasure of proper names.

Others, vehicles and dwellings, were everywhere now, as the language of signs reverberated through the jewelled colorations almost within the interior of the bodies themselves. The astronomical portent has
almost freed itself against the continual chatter of the typing machine unable to construct a closure against the work of nature.

(The dawn is a blood-red dawn, giving rise to the sequestering of revolution. The dawn is a blue-white dawn, an unnatural clarity once and for all concerning the all of things as they struggle into the exhaustion of proper names.)

Ah the great cylinder of the heavens, taking place night after night among the geometries of creation! The hemisphere which bursts through, in the disruption and silencing of language! The disappearance of
language itself, the presence of pure Being!


Dusks are otherwise, a leadening or sullen hue after the annihilation of the singularity which obtrusively burns its way throughout the sky. A leadening in the form of a catenary, carrying the heaviness of the dark trailing behind it, the cylinder steadfast, asserting itself and its future: looking up at what is to be.

The eyelids. I will not go through moment by moment, as time shears against itself, dissolves into its absence; dusks are not dawns, are not temporalized by the sudden and uncanny appearance of brilliance and the mechanisms of chatter everywhere at work upon the day. Nothing works upon dusks which are totalities thinning imperceptibly at the edges. Working is rustling only; dusk is the phenomenon of the underbrush and saturnine furs.

The night harboring only trivialities? Only the platitudinous? When language slips into the quiescent layers at the bottoms of the seas, when only scurryings reveal themselves in warm and warmer waters? The compression of the dusk of the new day which I will not bother to describe, which I will not caress with the vacuous forms of a romanticism already two centuries old, many dusks into dusts. Were it not for the disease of language in the invisibility of the gestures of the night, even this would go unmentioned. This, モthe person or thing, close at hand or touched as pointed to or drawn attention to or observed by the speaker at the time, or already named or understood or in question or familiarヤ in the Concise Oxford, henceforth abbreviated CO.

Alan Sondheim
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