on avant-garde today
interview by DONATIEN GRAU
portrait by GIASCO BERTOLI
DONATIEN GRAU — You were born in Pasadena, grew up in Arcadia: how did you discover you were a writer?
DENNIS COOPER — Well, I didn’t really write until I was about 12 or 13, I think. But I had this grandmother, my mother’s mother, and she was kind of amazing. She maybe would have been an artist in different circumstances — she was very creative. She would always tell these really crazy stories to us as kids, and I remember being very taken with those.
DONATIEN GRAU — What were the stories?
DENNIS COOPER — She was really into Winnie the Pooh, so we were like bears. But then I just read junk. I didn’t really care. When I was a kid, I read The Hardy Boys and stuff like that, which are just the books that every kid reads, or Dr. Seuss. And then I was so obsessed with television for some reason. In school, I never really read what we were assigned. I always faked it because I wasn’t interested in that stuff. But then I discovered French literature when I was 15, and then I got really serious. I went from reading just trash to reading super-highbrow avant-garde stuff. It was a weird jump. I never read the kind of classics that kids read because I didn’t really care.
DONATIEN GRAU — What were you writing when you were 12? Did it have anything to do with the discovery of sex?
DENNIS COOPER — Mmm, no. It was just kind of weird, surreal. It was terrible. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I don’t know where that came from. When I was a young teenager, when I became sexual, I began to have these strange sorts of dark fantasies. I don’t know where they came from. I think it was from just from the atmosphere in LA or something. And I started noticing that there were these sex crimes and stuff that the newspapers reported: at that time there were a lot of serial killers, and a bunch of them were in LA — like Charles Manson. I was interested by that, but I didn’t write about it. In the course of starting to read French literature, I found Sade, and that was big because it felt like, “Oh, you can actually write about this stuff and it’s literature.” I didn’t read The New York Times, and I didn’t realize that this stuff wasn’t taken seriously by the literary establishment. I just thought: well, these are published, and they’re books, and there are these introductions to the books in English that are really smart. So that made me think: “I can try to write about this.” So that was kind of big, discovering him.
DONATIEN GRAU — How old were you when you discovered Sade?
DENNIS COOPER — Fifteen.
DONATIEN GRAU — You said that you were starting to become sexualized. How did your personal process of sexualization and these fantasies interact?
DENNIS COOPER — They were very separate. I never had any confusion about that. I wrote an imitation of The 120 Days of Sodom that I put all my friends in. I put guys I felt were attractive and people at school and different things, and it was 1,000-plus pages, handwritten. It was terrible, but I did it, just to see what happened. Then I ended up burning it because I thought my parents were going to find it. That was the first time I ever tried to do anything, and it was just really erotic for me. It wasn’t literature. I wasn’t trying to do anything literary with it.
DONATIEN GRAU — And how did you go from not trying to do anything literary to becoming a writer?
DENNIS COOPER — I don’t know. I guess since I’d started reading French literature and was already writing a little bit, I just tried to imitate what I saw and see how that connected with what I was interested in. The early stuff was very derivative, but then eventually I started bringing my own interests and things into it. It just happened naturally. I just started writing more and more and being more attentive to what I wanted to write — and less attentive to trying to imitate things I liked.
DONATIEN GRAU — And what were your own interests?
DENNIS COOPER — I was very taken with Rimbaud when I read him, so I was interested in altered states. I did drugs, and I really liked psychedelics, so I was trying to put words to what I thought I was seeing, learning, and envisioning on drugs. I was also always interested in music, and to some degree, sex, but I didn’t bring that in too much at first. I didn’t see how I could work with that really. I tried with that Sade imitation, and it was just porn. I figured out how to do that much later.
DONATIEN GRAU — And how did you figure out how to do that?
DENNIS COOPER — I don’t know. Just worked at it. Just tried and tried and tried, until I found a way.
DONATIEN GRAU — You started to develop as a writer in LA in the late ’70s. That was quite an interesting time, when artists and writers got together. What was your relation to art?
DENNIS COOPER — I didn’t really have friends who were serious visual artists until 1980. Before then, I looked at art. When I was in high school, probably 16 or something, they took us on a field trip to the LA County Museum of Art: that was really big for me. It was the first time I’d had someone really try to make me understand conceptual art and stuff, and I was really struck by this John Baldessari piece called Wrong. I don’t know why, but for some reason I was startled by that, and I thought: “Wow.” There was something about the fact that it’s art. I was completely fascinated by it, and I thought it was hilarious and strange. The other stuff, like the Claes Oldenburgs and the Warhols, didn’t really interest me. Anyway, I would just look at art until 1980, when I started running the program Beyond Baroque. That was when a lot of those artists were in CalArts, and they would come down to the events, LACE was happening, which was a very vital place. Then I started to become friends with visual artists, and that changed everything: I could actually talk to them and see what they were doing and working on.
DONATIEN GRAU — Who were these artists?
DENNIS COOPER — The people who were there and that I knew especially were Mike Kelley, Pettibon, Jim Shaw and Steve Prina, and Chris Williams, and there were others, too. There was this whole scene of people who were coming out of CalArts, including Jim Isermann.
DONATIEN GRAU — Richard Hawkins?
DENNIS COOPER — Richard was later. I didn’t meet Richard until the end of the ‘80s. He was much younger. We did an exhibition at LACE together. Lari Pitman and I became good friends later. There was a scene that I was involved in, and it was the scene around Mike. And Charles Ray was there, but I didn’t meet Charley for a while because he wasn’t part of that. I knew Paul McCarthy a little bit, but not hugely well because he didn’t come around to the literary events much. I knew Ed Ruscha to some degree. Some people like Chris Burden I met, but they were older than me, or they seemed older than me, maybe they weren’t. Chris Burden and people like that were already big stars, so they were very intimidating.
DONATIEN GRAU — Mike Kelley was the one you were close to.
DENNIS COOPER — Yes, we became pretty close. He was a good friend. He’s obviously very influential. He was like the god of the scene. Everybody really revered Mike.
DONATIEN GRAU — And what was your dialogue with Mike Kelley?
DENNIS COOPER — We just hung out. He’d come to my stuff, and I’d go to his stuff. We’d just hang out and talk. He wanted to do a rock opera. A gothic rock opera. We talked about it for a while, but then he was really busy. He was starting to get really famous around then, and it just never happened. It would have been music onstage, and it would have been using gothic and sort of horrific imagery.
DONATIEN GRAU — What was your role at Beyond Baroque?
DENNIS COOPER — I was director of the programming for three years. They had Friday night events, which were supposedly writing events, though I started bringing in films and performances. I’d bring in writers from wherever — whoever could afford to come to LA on the tiny amount of money they could pay there.
DONATIEN GRAU — You were very interested in the punk scene.
DENNIS COOPER — I liked the music, went to all the shows. It was just really exciting. There was a lot of incredible music being made in LA at that point, associated to some degree with the punk scene, although a lot of it was art: it was like a combination of art and punk. It was exciting.
DONATIEN GRAU — What were some of your other art collaborations?
DENNIS COOPER — Most never came to anything. I did these books with Lari Pittman, which Matthew Marks put out. There are three of them. And Jim Isermann and I were going to write a rock opera too, another rock opera with Michael Quercio, who was in this band The Three O’Clock, and that never happened either. So most of it was just talk.
DONATIEN GRAU — At the time you were also developing your own literary world. How did it unfold?
DENNIS COOPER — I just wrote.
DONATIEN GRAU — There are specific structures in your work, though. How did they develop?
DENNIS COOPER — Well, that’s really hard to talk about. I never learned how to write. Other than taking poetry classes, I never studied fiction and never read conventional fiction, so I didn’t have any basic skills. I was coming out of avant-garde literature and trash. I was trying to find a way to write. I think I’m a good writer, but I have limitations because of that.
DONATIEN GRAU — What are your limitations?
DENNIS COOPER — I don’t know how to do plot. I never learned how to do psychological plot. And I wasn’t interested in literary writing at all. That kind of literary fiction, I never liked. I didn’t have any experience with it. I didn’t want to do it. Literary fiction always seemed so adult to me. There came a certain point when I realized I wanted to write about very difficult things. I’ve always been really interested in confusion and the idea that confusion is the truth — and trying to put words to things that have no words, trying to describe things where words aren’t appropriate, emotions and all that stuff. Stuff that’s really hard to write about without veering into cliché and convention. I was interested in visual arts, especially sculpture. And so I was just testing and trying different things to figure out how I could build a structure, usually in advance. And then I could write. It would create different levels. Charles Ray was a huge influence because he really is interested in how space works and particle physics. He would always talk about this and teach his students, and I was really taken with that. It really influenced me a lot about space and the idea that you could write something, and it would be a three-dimensional object. Or you would conceive something as a three-dimensional object. It just slowly developed, and then there came a point where I was like: okay, I think I can do this. I think I have an idea for a structure that I can work with. And so I developed this structure that was for five books. I’d always wanted to write a cycle of books, since I was 15. I built this structure then I ended up writing what would become the George Miles Cycle.
DONATIEN GRAU — Charles Ray is really obsessed with ghosts. Is this something you are very interested in as well?
DENNIS COOPER — Yeah. The paranormal doesn’t interest me, but the idea of the paranormal interests me. It’s like drugged states. I like silly representations of important things. Disneyland was probably as big an influence on me as anything. And so I was always really interested in haunted houses and that kind of thing, but I never believed in ghosts. Charley’s car [Unpainted Sculpture, 1997, an actual-sized crashed car molded in fiberglass] — he was making that when we were close friends — is fascinating because that’s completely about ghosts. Even when he talks about ghosts being a presence and an absence at the same time, it’s not about ghosts. It’s about the structure. That’s something that has been very important for me. It is something I was really trying to do: have things at different levels. To have some things be transparent and others be opaque and the prose be liquid, so you can see inside it and at the bottom of it, too.
DONATIEN GRAU — How do you see your work in relation to the novel as a genre, which — as a narrative that goes from point A to point B — seems to be the opposite of what you do?
DENNIS COOPER — I don’t know what else it would be, since it’s a certain length, it’s prose, and it has some kind of narrative continuity in it. It really isn’t anything else. I don’t really care about novels. I’m not interested in writing novels; I just write them. But I’ve been doing these things lately where I’m making novels out of animated GIFs. People are like: “That’s not a novel,” and I’m like, “Yeah, of course it is.” To me, Zac’s Haunted House, or the ones I’ve been doing on my blog, which are stories or poems and stuff, are as much like a novel or a story as the things with words. I was never really interested in doing what I had to do to make sure it qualified as “a novel.” But I am interested to some degree in working with the kind of propulsiveness and trajectory that goes with narrative, even though narrative is the least interesting thing to me. It’s always just a gimmick to use to keep people; that’s what makes it fiction.
DONATIEN GRAU — Going back to a key topic of your work, which is violence and sex: how do you react to the idea that your work is “evil”?
DENNIS COOPER — I don’t believe in evil.
DONATIEN GRAU — You don’t believe in evil. Why?
DENNIS COOPER — Why would I?
DONATIEN GRAU — I don’t know.
DENNIS COOPER — It’s a silly idea. I mean, evil? What does that even mean?
DONATIEN GRAU — Hell. People that do things that lead them to hell.
DENNIS COOPER — That’s evil? Calling it evil is a way to not think about what it is. It’s a generalization, and I’m not interested in generalizations at all. I really can’t stand them. So saying that something’s evil locks it into this preconceived concept. Then it becomes this generalized thing and then you don’t have to think about it anymore. I don’t believe in that.
DONATIEN GRAU — Let’s just use an example from Period, the fifth novel of the George Miles Cycle. At the end, the characters are assaulting a kid in a very brutal way. Why are they doing it?
DENNIS COOPER — It has to do with something that goes on all through the novel, and it has to do with more than just the characters. The characters aren’t real people, so it’s really difficult for me to parse that out.
DONATIEN GRAU — On the one hand, you say it’s always an individual fact, and that is what confuses you. So there is confusion, and basically there is an element of trying to find reasons to justify itself.
DENNIS COOPER — Right. Excuses.
DONATIEN GRAU — And on the other hand, you say that they’re not real people, and therefore you can’t find a reason. How do you keep the two ideas together?
DENNIS COOPER — Well, I’m not interested in reasons. I don’t know that I really believe in reasons. Those characters happened at a certain point in the novel, and they’re a heavy metal band or a fake heavy metal band. So they have this ideology that they don’t really believe they’re employing in their reasoning for doing what they do, and that has evil in it, which justifies it to them and makes it cool; and at the same time, they’re trying to find this kid, they’re tracing this person back, and he resembles this person. It’s always about resemblance, and you never really get to the source. The original source is Vincent Kartheiser in one of his movies, that young actor. And that’s obviously an actor who is playing a part. There is no bottom to it. I don’t want any of those things to make sense. I want them all to melt together into what the entire novel is trying to do. They’re all these little occasions in this overall thing.
DONATIEN GRAU — But there’s something that’s always there. It’s love: there is a sort of love between the characters, or the figures.
DENNIS COOPER — I don’t think that there’s anything between the figures. I think it’s all from me, maybe, toward something. But the characters are just illustrating something else.
DONATIEN GRAU — Yes. But love is often there. Why?
DENNIS COOPER — Why? If I knew, I wouldn’t write these fucking books! Come on. Why would you write if you understood something? You write something to try to understand something. And why would I keep writing about it if I’d ever come to an understanding of it?
DONATIEN GRAU — So you would say there is, in your work, a triangle of violence, sex, and love?
DENNIS COOPER — Yes, sometimes. Usually love isn’t involved. Usually, it’s entirely selfish. I mean, sometimes the characters, who would allow things to happen to them, have a desire that they don’t really even know they have — to be loved — but they don’t do it for love.
DONATIEN GRAU — As you said, confusion is the truth. An important part of your work has to do with understanding or trying to understand.
DENNIS COOPER — Yes, of course. That’s an impetus. Why not? But if you’re like me, and you don’t believe in generalizations or clarity or the kind of clarity that belongs to anybody but yourself, it’s very difficult to understand things. You just make compromises, and then you know they’re compromises and you try to work around them.
DONATIEN GRAU — You’re a firm believer in individuality, both in terms of the reader and in terms of the author.
DENNIS COOPER — Yes. When I write a book, I’m writing an incalculable number of books because every time someone reads a book it’s a different book. And I always think about that. I never think about it being a complete thing or a finished thing. I think of it as being these things that are going to interact with each person. When people say, “Who do you write for?” I don’t write for anybody, I just write to try to connect with other imaginations. Imagination to imagination.
DONATIEN GRAU — That ties into the question of reality and the belief in it.
DENNIS COOPER — I believe in reality.
DONATIEN GRAU — But the world of art creates space for alternative worlds?
DENNIS COOPER — Yeah, I think. That’s why I admire visual art because it’s so much less directive than fiction. Fiction’s very directive, and that’s one of the things you have to fight with. Music also interests me because, even lyrics, they’re not on their own. It’s language being used as an instrument in the music. And movies, when they’re interesting, are like that, too. All these things interest me more than actual fiction does.
DONATIEN GRAU — I want to go back to the George Miles Cycle before going to the Internet, since it was really a turning point in your work. There’s a before and after the George Miles Cycle, would you agree with that?
DENNIS COOPER — That was the big project I had always wanted to do, and all I was concentrating on was creating that cycle of books. It was very big, and then I had to start over again.
DONATIEN GRAU — Then you didn’t start a new cycle after that.
DENNIS COOPER — Yes, but I’m starting one now. It took a long time to be in the mood or to find the right reason to do it.
DONATIEN GRAU — What is it going to be?
DENNIS COOPER — I don’t know. I just started it.
DONATIEN GRAU — What is the motive?
DENNIS COOPER — The motive is to create something worthy of my friend Zac [Farley]’s attention and respect, and to honor him. But that has nothing to do thematically with my work. It’s not biography or autobiography.
DONATIEN GRAU — Are you honoring him the way you wanted to honor George Miles?
DENNIS COOPER — Well, it’s very different.
DONATIEN GRAU — How?
DENNIS COOPER — They’re two completely different people. And I’m a totally different person than I was then.
DONATIEN GRAU — How do you draw the line between what’s connected to your life and what’s separate from it?
DENNIS COOPER — I have no problem incorporating things from my life as material because I’m not afraid that it’s going to be like opening Pandora’s box, or that I’m going to be confused or anything. I always had a very clear line there: the stuff from my life was the stuff I was interested in, or the people I knew and could understand to some degree. I just brought them into the work, but it was never like I was trying to create some utopia where I could live or something.
DONATIEN GRAU — What about your interest in other media: you use the Internet, performance, and now film. How do these forms relate to being a writer?
DENNIS COOPER — It’s just trying to find new ways to work without having to write novels. The last novel I wrote was called The Marbled Swarm, and I was able to achieve something I’d always wanted to achieve, and I’m very happy with that book. And so, having done that, I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where I really need to think about how I want to do what I want to do. Because I’d always wanted to do what I did in that book, since I first started writing.
DONATIEN GRAU — What were you able to do, exactly?
DENNIS COOPER — It’s very difficult. Just creating something that was really complex and that used fictional tropes and fictional language and fictional mechanisms and devices in a way that caused them to be entirely subservient to something else. And also to do it without having to split it up into little groups. Because before, my work was very much about creating these things that you kind of puzzle together. Then when I was able to unify it, I was able to do a lot of layering and to go inside it and create secret passages. And I was never really able to do that so well before. So after that, I felt like: “Okay, I have to really think about what I want to do now.” I am writing another novel and it’s very plain. I’m trying to do something that’s the opposite now. Writing theater pieces, working in GIFs rather than with words, and also working with Zac on a film, are new ways to use and think about language. We made this first film, and we’re working on developing the second one. I feel very much, even though he directed it, that it’s our work. It’s a combination of just trying to do something with language that feels new to me and also trying to see what will happen to my writing after I’ve done it.
DONATIEN GRAU — The topic of collaboration leads me to ask you about the avant-garde: do you believe in it?
DENNIS COOPER — You said in a previous conversation that there was not an avant-garde anymore, and I said there was. When I was a kid, when I was young, that was the term that was used, and you don’t hear that term very much anymore.
DONATIEN GRAU — So you believe in the idea of the avant-garde?
DENNIS COOPER — Of course! The term might be kind of outdated and useless now, but of course I do. The underground. Of course.
DONATIEN GRAU — What does it mean for you?
DENNIS COOPER — I don’t know. Things that are trying to push art forward?
DONATIEN GRAU — And how does it happen?
DENNIS COOPER — You know it when you see it.
DONATIEN GRAU — Was there such a thing as an avant-garde in LA in the early ’80s?
DENNIS COOPER — There were a lot of artists doing extremely unique things with a lot of skill and a lot of belief. So does that make it avant-garde? I guess so. But it wasn’t recognized outside of Los Angeles, and only to some degree within.
DONATIEN GRAU — Do you think there’s an avant-garde now?
DENNIS COOPER — Of course. Always.
DONATIEN GRAU — Where?
DENNIS COOPER — Everywhere.
DONATIEN GRAU — But do you think that it has become more localized or that it’s grown globally?
DENNIS COOPER — No, it’s become more localized again because the art world, the publishing world, and to some degree film, are so involved with making money, that you don’t see it very often. Sometimes people sneak in, but there are tons of people making extremely interesting work. That work is happening all the time. And there’s always an underground: there is everywhere, all the time an underground.
DONATIEN GRAU — Maybe the avant-garde has become less obvious because people have become more separate and isolated.
DENNIS COOPER — Or it’s bigger because of the Internet. All the weirdos can find each other on the Internet.
DONATIEN GRAU — You’re one of the first writers to really use the Internet in a radical way. Why was it so interesting and attractive to work with the technology, both in the text and online?
DENNIS COOPER — I don’t know, I just stumbled into it. I started doing this blog because there’s this website — it’s not my own — which is like the Dennis Cooper website, and the guy that owns the site did a poll and asked: “What would you most like Dennis to do?” And he said to me: “Would you agree that one of these things, whatever wins, you will do it?” And so there were a bunch of choices and one of them was a blog, and that won. And so I said “OK, fine, I’ll do it.” I just started making a blog, whenever, nine, 10 years ago. I kept doing it because it interests me. So that really wedded me to the Internet. Then when I was there with this blog, I needed to think about how to use the forum. I’m constantly trying to find things to make posts about. That just got me really involved online. And maybe it would have happened anyway, but having the blog is like having a research paper you have to write. I’m not a pioneer, though, I’m just a person who’s working with it in my own way.
DONATIEN GRAU — But it’s interesting because then it also becomes part of your fiction as well, for example in The Sluts.
DENNIS COOPER — It depends. Marbled Swarm hardly has any Internet in it at all. I made these GIF novels, GIF fictions, that’s using the Internet, because the GIF only exists online. That’s what interests me about it: it can’t exist in any other form except online. Of course it’s influencing me, but I don’t always write about the Internet or use it as a figure in the work or anything. It’s just like music or something. It’s like listening to some record that blew my mind years and years ago that I then tried to imitate. I used to do that a lot: imitate records.
DONATIEN GRAU — Is style important for you?
DENNIS COOPER — Style is really involved in the structure. It makes the structure invisible or upholsters it. I’m totally interested in style.
DONATIEN GRAU — What would you say is the relationship between style and charisma, which is a word you also use to describe your interests?
DENNIS COOPER — It’s one way to create charisma, artificially. It’s one of the ways you can do that.
DONATIEN GRAU — Are there other ways?
DENNIS COOPER — Everything you do. Charisma’s a totality. Everything that you’re trying to make charismatic, every element of it is absolutely crucial.
DONATIEN GRAU — I’m interested in where you stand in regard to the visual arts now. You are a contributing editor of Artforum, and you wrote important essays on artists who were your peers or even your students. How do you feel about the arts now?
DENNIS COOPER — I don’t write about it, but I’m just as interested as I always was. I’m just not writing about it because I don’t have any time to do journalism anymore. I had to have a policy that I had to cut something: I’m working on novels, I’m working on films, I’m working on theater, I’m working on the blog, and then journalism was always very difficult for me. I don’t think I am a good nonfiction writer. It was a struggle for me and always took much longer than it should have, so I just don’t do it. But I’m still just as excited and still go see art all the time.
DONATIEN GRAU — A word you use a lot is “exciting.” What does it mean?
DENNIS COOPER — You can’t figure something out. It gives you pleasure because you don’t understand how the person did it and you don’t understand why it’s giving you pleasure, and so you get excited. You’re like: “Wow, what is this?” It’s like that. It’s simple.
DONATIEN GRAU — How much does novelty matter to you then?
DENNIS COOPER — Oh, very much. New things are always exciting. What’s better than that? My work tends to happen in this fairly limited area, and I really don’t want to repeat myself. That’s very important, and I could do so easily, so I am just constantly trying to refresh what I’m doing.
[Table of contents]
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Charlotte ChesnaisRead the article
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Clara 3000Read the article
Alex PragerRead the article
VetementsRead the article
Dennis CooperRead the article
Sylvie AuvrayRead the article
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Elie TopRead the article
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Stephen ShoreRead the article
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Cecilia BengoleaRead the article
Dike BlairRead the article
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