Lauren O’Neill-Butler – Artforum International
As a writer, critic and former editor of arts forum, Lauren O’Neill-Butler has made an art of the interview format, having done over one hundred and fifty over the past thirteen years. His latest book, Let’s Talk: Conversations with Women on Art and Culture (Karma), brings together many of them, effectively bringing together a disparate group of artists, writers and thinkers, including Adrian Piper, Alex Bag, Sturtevant, Lorraine O’Grady and others, in a sort dialogue with each other. Here, the interviewee, O’Neill-Butler, talks about the value of public speaking, the great art of listening, and the need to have such conversations in feminist practice.
MY FIRST INTERVIEWS were published in punk zines when I was in high school in the 90s. I think the first piece was in Heart attack— which sounded a bit like Maxiumrocknroll — with women who had started a feminist band that met in the parking lot of that notoriously macho punk club in Tampa, Florida, where I grew up. When I was in college, I started pitching for screw up and Female dog, feminist zines that, at the time, were getting more and more glorious. The oldest interview in the book is the one I did with Judy Chicago for Female dog in 2007 to coincide with the opening of dinner (1979) at the Brooklyn Museum’s new Sackler Center. I think I took the interview because I wanted to clear in my mind why she matters to me, a third wave feminist. I wanted to know more about where I came from.
Public speaking is distinct from other types of speech, which is why the interview is such a special format. Hannah Arendt, for example, talks about making private thoughts public and how that can persuade someone, change someone’s mind, get them to join you, or maybe join them. But the thinker most central to my understanding of public speaking is Simone Weil. She is known more as a mystic, less as a hard-hitting political thinker. She once said, “Everyone knows that a truly intimate conversation is only possible in twos or threes. As soon as there are six or seven, the collective language begins to dominate. And that, to me, is so true. For someone who has been leading and setting up interviews and round tables for a long time, it is clear that in a conversation between two or three people, there is a real rigor and intimacy. When there are more people involved, a collective hive thought begins to enter. It’s just a different power dynamic.
The interviews began to point to other ways of doing philosophy, outside of the classroom. I much preferred a meeting of the minds at the kitchen table, where I always wanted to be while talking with someone in person. I also liked the primacy of the text, the culture of speech. Adrian Piper sometimes said to me during our interviews: “We do the Platonic dialogues here. But Plato’s dialogues weren’t really dialogues. It was one person listening to another, with curiosity. Real and unaffected curiosity is a form we have sadly lost. I like the appeasement of oneself during an interview that lets the other speak. I kind of try to decree myself, or decenter myself a bit, even if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. There are many interviewers who do the interview for themselves.
When I was editor of art forumIn the Interviews column, people were asking why we mainly interview women. I would just answer, next question please. But I tried to do an accounting in this column of what was not happening in the magazine. There were a lot of artists who just didn’t have a say, weren’t represented in the magazine, or didn’t like the way they were represented. And historically, it was the case where the voices of artists took precedence over their objects, although this is less and less the case now.
In the introduction to the book, I mention Gertrude Stein’s idea of the present continuous – a repetition that seems increasingly relentless these days. It was always interesting for me to see how certain words – an international artistic language – appeared and reappeared again and again through different interviews. One of my favorite pieces collected in the book is by Donna Haraway, and she begins by saying, “It’s not like I have a vendetta against the word anthropocene. . .” then keep offering captialocene as the word that should rather be used to define our times. After this interview, I noticed that a lot of artists were suddenly talking about the Anthropocene. It has become one of those buzzwords.
I started asking people the same question recently. I asked Adrian and Howardena Pindell and a few others about spiritual armor, and what can we rely on in this time of flood. Adrian’s answer to that question was an amazing sequence of thoughts – “a simple five-point plan distilled from the principles of nonviolent resistance” – that someone on the internet read and then turned into a poster. When I saw this, I thought, Alright, I did my job here.