Interview by Shana Gallagher Lindsay
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paul chan, 5th light, 2006, installation view
photo by martin runeborg

Paul Chan was born in Hong Kong (1973) and raised in Nebraska. He received his BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and his MFA in film/video/new media from Bard College (2002). His work in various media oscillates between the delicate and the monumental, the subtle and the provocative, connecting complex ideas to today’s mass-media-disseminated material and cunningly deploying both traditional and newer techniques to re-imagine older notions.

Following graduate school, Chan produced a suite of three videos (Re: The Operation, 27 min., 2002; Baghdad in no Particular Order, 51 min., 2003; Now Promise Now Threat, 33 min. 2005) that at once articulate and blur distinctions (e.g., friend vs. foe) that we commonly use to position ourselves in the social sphere. Subsequently, The 7 Lights (2005-08), arguably Chan’s first major art-world success, challenges the common Western linkage of knowledge and creation to clarity (vs. darkness). The mesmerizing video features shadowy objects and figures that float or fall through a zone that insinuates a shaft of light from a window, and alludes at once to Biblical accounts of creation and destruction, Plato’s cave, and Alberti’s Renaissance window.
Seemingly finding a more rebellious source of inspiration, Chan came out with several sexually-infused works, including Sade for Sade’s Sake, which premiered at the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009). The projection animates monumental silhouetted figures that alternately assemble in orgiastic frenzy and shatter through devices like syncopation and abstract formal arrangement, then disappear. Re-conceiving an otherwise non-sexual cultural terrain as a field charged with ecstasy and desire, Chan wrote Phaderus Pron (2008), a dialogue inspired by Plato’s Phaedrus, wherein the guidelines of a platonic master/student relationship are blissfully defied. Chan’s term, pron, is borrowed from “pr0n,” a masking-word devised to disguise Internet searches for pornography. Appropriating at the other end of the cultural spectrum from Plato and yet violating similar “laws,” Chan re-scripts a Law And Order episode with suggestive subtitles in the Mother of All Episodes (2009, 45 min. loop). Connected to the Sade project, Chan created fonts that compel users to generate a transgressive text. Working well beyond the traditional boundaries of many visual artists, Chan helped to organize a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot in post-Katrina New Orleans in 2005. He has written insightfully on topics as seemingly disparate as Emanuel Kant, Walter Benjamin, the lyrics of the Insane Clown Posse, and the current economic recession.

Shana Gallagher Lindsay: Paul, I’d like to start with a fairly basic question about your well-known work, The 7 Lights (2005-2008) To what degree was the specific imagery of the projections meaningful?

PAUL CHAN: I suppose it is the degree to which one is willing to spend time with it.

paul chan, 5th light, 2006, installation view
photo by jason mandella

Lindsay: Descriptions of the work, such as that accompanying its exhibition at the New Museum (New York, 2006) liken it to the Biblical seven days of creation, and seven lights are also mentioned in the Book of Revelations. What kind of a hold does religion have on your thought?

CHAN: A surprising one. It’s surprising given that we’re now living in 2011. I didn’t think that at the beginning of the 21st century, religion would have such a hold on our social imagination. I just heard Obama’s speech last night in Arizona [the memorial for the Tucson shooting victims], and I was so struck by what was said. Two of the people that spoke were from his Administration: Eric Holder, the Attorney General, and Janet Napolitano, who is Homeland Security Director and who used to be the governor of Arizona. And as our top civil servants, they basically spoke only through the Bible. Napolitano quoted from the Old Testament, and Holder quoted from Paul, in Corinthians. They didn’t say anything else. They just quoted scripture. The implication is that religion, and Christianity in this country in particular, is the only social balm that offers any kind of solace for something like what happened in Arizona. But, we know that’s not true.

Lindsay: So it seems.

CHAN: Or let’s say it like this. Progress would be an image of immanent consolation. In any case, I think anyone who is even remotely interested in the present tense can’t help but see the hold religion has, here and there.

Lindsay: So, perhaps more after 9/11 than before?

CHAN: Here is an interesting parallel. It was only after going to Iraq before the 2003 occupation that I realized this. Historically, Iraq wasn’t a religious country. Whatever one may think of Saddam Hussein, his ambition was to create the first modern and secular Arab state, one that was neither beholden to Western colonial powers nor Muslim fundamentalists. It was only after the First Gulf War in 1990 that it became weaponized with a kind of institutional Islam, because Hussein used it as a way to mend the social fabric of the country after his country was decimated. And, so, the parallel between the social fabric ripping in Iraq, and then political orders using religion to try to mend it, in a way, parallels, I think, what is happening here.

Lindsay: It’s a galvanizing factor.

CHAN: Yeah, and, you know, I think the dreams of modernity are still there, but the idea that social, economic, and maybe even aesthetic progress can come from a kind of, well, immanence, as opposed to transcendence, I think, seems to be an anachronism today. It’s sad but true. Maybe it’s not sadâ€it’s obviously not sad for the people who believe, because it’s just prophecy, I suppose.

Lindsay: You have been critical of certain social media. [Paul Chan, “The Unthinkable Community,” e-flux Journal]. You have likewise criticized recent video and new media art, and the manner of their presentation in galleries and museums. Would you elaborate on your critique?

CHAN: I can. Someday. And it will be incisive and illuminating.

paul chan, 3rd light, 2006, idigital video projection, table, 14:00

Lindsay: What are distinctions between your work in new media, and that of which you, perhaps, don’t approve?

CHAN: I approve of all the work. I just don’t want to be around any of it.

Lindsay: Do you think there’s a kind of crescendo in culture now, a sort of urgency to be “of one’s time,” that is problematic? You went to school for new media, right?

CHAN: I studied film and video. New media was just in the air.

Lindsay: So, was there a kind of critical view of it there, or was everyone pretty much gung ho?

CHAN: I think that at the time that I went to school, new media was different from what we know of it now. In, say, 2000-2001, new media was really about the Web. Online manifestations held the promise for a kind of interactivity that was mediated by programming or different formal expressions. This mediation no longer exists. Somehow there is no longer mediation. New media has transformed into the promise of social media. And so, connections have themselves become forms of expression. Atlanta Garbage Disposal Repair .

Lindsay: So, you engage various media in your works: .gif format animations, projected videos, installations. Does media bear much of the meaning in your work? Is the medium at all the message?

CHAN: I don’t know how to answer that except that it is something that I use.

paul chan, happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization (after henry darger and charles fourier) (still), 2000-2003, mini pc, installation instructions, sparkle vellum screen and equipment specifications

Lindsay:: And, if you were using a flip book, or something, for the Darger work that you did [Happiness (finally) after 35,000 Years of Civilizationâ€after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier, projected digital animation, color, 17 min., 2000-2003], would it have a similar resonance?

CHAN: I don’t know. When I do work, I have a flash of an idea or thought in my mind, and then I sit on it for a couple days, a couple weeks, months, or a couple of years. And if the thought sticks around, then I realize that it has the potential of being more than a thought, and that it should become something more than mindfulness. Essence becomes appearance. And how it appears, then, is the way something transforms from a thought into a thing, and then into something else. And so, I don’t care actually whether the thing is a flip book or a video or a projection. It only matters what this thought which becomes a thing can change both in the process to become something wholly other.

Lindsay: Some of your videos are long projections.

CHAN: Is that a compliment?

Lindsay: You could say that your art makes time for itself and demands the viewers’ time. Would you discuss your interest in time? I know you have discussed it in various contexts.

CHAN: Sure. First, I feel like I don’t have any… And I don’t know if this right, but it seems to me that one way to not feel like this is to make time. watch movies .

Lindsay: We can produce it.

CHAN: Yes. When I make work, the pleasure of the making comes from how this work holds me in its time. One makes time as much as one makes work. And it seems to me that this is important because time is also what we spend to make a being of ourselves. I am constantly at a loss as to how to make more of it.

Lindsay: Do you think your kind of art heightens one’s awareness of time spent?

CHAN: Some people have said I have wasted their time. And sometimes, in my less successful works, I have wasted my own.

Lindsay: You seem to understand your role as something of a catalyst. Am I correct in this assessment?

CHAN: Who said that?

Lindsay: I just see that. watch movies online .

CHAN: Really? I guess I’d have to deny it.

Lindsay: Really?

CHAN: Catalyst for what?

Lindsay: Well, maybe forging communities rather than networking.

CHAN: It’s hard to tell the difference these days.

paul chan and christopher mcelroen, waiting for godot, 2007
creative time, new york and the classical theater of harlem

Lindsay: Is it? How about in your work Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, your work with students and artists down there?†it seems that this was an important aspect of the project for youâ€people coming together and then taking off from that point.

CHAN: There were many aspects to that project. What I appreciate most about the experience was that they were all equidistant in import to what happened.

Lindsay: I have another question about that particular work. I was reminded of Robert Smithson’s sites/non-sites and Hans Haacke’s politicized installations when I saw your recent installation at The Museum of Modern Art of objects and ephemera from the New Orleans project. Are you inspired by these artists? And why is this kind of documentary presentation important? Why not just show the video of the performance?

CHAN: I’m interested in Smithson. Seeing his retrospective, I was surprised at how Christian his works fundamentally were. We know of his earthworks. I didn’t know his paintings. At first, it seemed jarring to see the paintings and then the earthworks. But then the more you expose yourself to them, the more you see the continuity of what is happening†especially the idea of redemption. I think that showing the video is the surest way of lying. I think video today has the feeling of it being it. And it’s not it.

Lindsay: “It” meaning what it’s all about, the meaning of it.

CHAN: I don’t think the props would do it either. I think the important thing is to remind people that whatever you show, this isn’t it. I think that’s as close as it gets.

Lindsay: There’s always something else.

CHAN: As close as it gets.

Lindsay: It’s always an approximation.

CHAN: Yes.

Lindsay: The issue of sacrifice has come up in your comments and writings. For instance, in your talk, “Spirit of the Recession,” a privileged class unjustifiably exacts sacrifice from the underclass. You have discussed the displacement of religion onto secular behavior. Are there any particular texts that have inspired your thinking in this direction?

CHAN: Our mutual friend, Bob Hullot-Kentor, of course. There are definitely others. I just guest edited an issue of e-flux Journal with an art historian and critic from the Netherlands, Sven Lütticken. It’s about the rise of right-wing populism in the US and Europe. And I write about how in this country, when things go wrong, people feel like someone has to pay. And that’s as succinct as it gets. Someone has to pay. This is the impulse to sacrifice, right? But, strangely, it’s never the people who fucked it up in the first place; it’s always someone else. And I think this impulse is not modern; but it’s also not eternal. I think thinking through what it actually means is one thing; and then finding forms that would articulate it in a way that is illuminatingâ€finding ways to illuminate it from within would be useful.

Lindsay: What is it that you value in the sexual content of your recent work?

CHAN: What I value most is how it made sex for me the truer image of sex than before, which is, that it is not sex. It is entangled in such a way that it renewed a particular image of it for me. The idea of the Sade project has been in my mind for a while, and I finally took the time to do it, and in doing it, renewed a particular image of sex that, I think, is as complex and contradictory as it ought to be.

paul chan, sade for sade’s sake, 2009, digital projection, 5 hours, 45 minutes looped

Lindsay: And how would you describe your relationship as artist with the viewer or readerâ€because there are the Pron texts [such as Composition as Explanation Pron where you transfigure a seminal text by Gertrude Stein as a pornographic monologue]â€at the time the sexually-charged content is consumed by the viewer/reader?

CHAN: I don’t know. That brings to mind an image of me doing some sort of focus group experiment, where I’m behind a one-way mirror, watching people reading it. From the sales of the books online, I would say there are no readers. And, if there were, they’re not telling me what it’s like to read it. I did do a public reading of Pron, though. And it was both tedious and pleasurable.

Lindsay: Well, your voice changes that. I listened to that reading. The way you read it gave it more harmony.

CHAN: Well, thank you. But, I would like to think that, if one were to have a quiet dayâ€let’s say, riding on New Jersey Transitâ€and you were to start reading it aloud, one would find that the only way to make sense of it would be to make it rhythmic. Perhaps sense is nothing but rhythm? What was interesting about doing the book, and about doing Sade [Sade for Sade’s Sake, 5h, 45min. video projection, fonts, drawings, installation, 2010], was the insight that pornography and poetry both use rhythm to be more than what they are. In the work of some, this is clear. Sade, for instance, or Sappho. So, what I wanted to do with the fonts that I made, which is the “vocabulary” for the novel, was to distill the idea of rhythm-as-sex. That was the interesting compositional challengeâ€what happens when you charge words and phrases that are not sensical, but not nonsensical, with this compositional rhythm.

Lindsay: And there it would seem that the medium is important, as you [the artist] can control rhythm [in animation] or [with the fonts] you can give some control to a user.

paul chan, the body of oh ho_darlin (truetype font), 2008, ink on paper and mixed media

CHAN: More and less. In the case of the fonts, they reduce your ability to communicate at the same time that they give you the chance to type what I imagine you want to say anyway.

Lindsay: You seem to have transformed the idea of the archive with your website, National Philistine. You have vivified it, so it is no longer a “tomb” with “relics,” where art historians go to excavate, but rather, a forum, in whichâ€particularly due to your readings of other people’s textsâ€the dead and the living connect, virtually. To what extent are your art and your archive the same? Or are they separate in your mind?

CHAN: They’re not the same but they’re not separate. I put stuff online when I have time and when I feel like it. I put stuff online that is sometimes half finished, that is, in a way, incomplete. And I like it that way. It’s a cross between a half-forgotten folder, a trashcan, and a compost heap.

And, to me, it keeps a particular notion of new media alive: the idea of giving stuff away. I think this is actually the one of the most interesting notions we have now. We live in a time when scarcity may not be what gives something value. Like musicians, who give away whole albums for free in order to continue working and living, we’re seeing that scarcity does not create value as much as it used to.

Lindsay: A kind of potlatch.

CHAN: I suppose. Being someone who came up at a time when the Web was just flowering, I had the experience of just making stuff and putting it up, and I see this as a continuation of that kind of spirit. Now, it doesn’t mean that you have to be puritanical about it. It doesn’t mean that you should give away everything; there should be some distinctions to be made. But then the question is: What are those distinctions? I think that’s constantly negotiated, and negotiable. I finally just downloaded the Girl Talk album, and it’s great. And you know, I started an e-book press, and I want to sell e-books…

Lindsay: Badlands Unlimited?

CHAN: Yeah, but, all the books I read are free, and are illegal e-books. And I don’t even go to see movies any more, I just download them off of BitTorrent, and that’s just the way it is. And it’s great. I always had this idea that there should be a law that if something is really popularâ€lets say if 50,000 or 100,000 people like it enoughâ€that, by law, it should be free.

Lindsay: You once stated that successful art is that which is memorable. What do you hope will be memorable about your work?

CHAN: I said that?

Lindsay: Yeah.

CHAN: Where was it?

Lindsay: An interview [with Beth Capper in F Newsmagazine] where you were discussing other unnamed people’s collages, bricollages, and you said that what made some stand out from others was that they were memorable. So, I was wondering what you want to be memorable about your work.

CHAN: A difficult question…

Lindsay: Difficult because its too broad?

CHAN: No. Because it puts me in a position of telling other people what they ought to take away from the work. And so, maybe the best thing to say is: I hope that what people remember about the work is, at the least, is that it is not it. Whatever it is, it is not it.

Chan, Paul and Sven Lütticken. e-flux Journal []
Hullot-Kentor, Robert. “Origin Is the Goal,” in Things Beyond Resemblence: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2006), 1â€22.

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