The Rigorous Bastardization of Dream

John Haber
in New York City

An Interview with Kristen Alvanson

Kristen Alvanson's career as an artist has crossed from the East Village to the Middle East. In her painting and, especially, drawing, she may seem to be constructing intricate systems out of moments in her life while withholding the key. In an interview by email, spanning roughly two weeks, she offered a peek at the artistic process, which continues on her Web site. The titles here are this webzine's only.

"Reversing our roles"

John Haber: Your current projects are collaborative. Tell me a little about the process and how it has changed your work.

Kristen Alvanson's Work in Progress (courtesy of the artist, 2007)

Kristen Alvanson: Some of my projects are collaborations, because working with other people gives me the chance to see from new points of view, in the sense of the dissociation of PoVs in role-playing games. For example, I was telling someone I wasn't having any dreams lately, and it was messing up my dream work. She told me I should take some of her dreams because she was having plenty. She wrote out four very detailed dreams she had, so I took them. What was so appealing to me was that I'm not sure if she embellished the dreams or not!

While I was reading her dreams I thought of Angela Carter and what is real and what is fantasy—or in this case what might be fantasy on top of dream fantasy, the rigorous bastardization of dream. I think she might have embellished, which is fine or maybe even better, but at this point it doesn't make any difference. It is like trying to impregnate an already conceived ovum. I began to remember her dreams as if they were my own—the way I play back my own dreams in my mind. I was staging her dreams over and over in my head until they were mine and then drawing them as I draw my own.

I'm involved in another collaboration as well, with Steven Lee, the DJ and producer of Lee Cabrera. We have been playing around with ways to mix art and music. At first we thought he would create a few samples and then I would draw my "feelings" about them, but that seemed too easy. So then we thought it would be more interactive if he taught me how to create music samples and I in turn taught him how to draw, so he can draw my samples. I like the idea of reversing our roles to see what happens.

Now we are trying to figure out how to make "unlistenable" music. We wondered if there are any musicians/bands who actively seek to make unlistenable music? I'm not talking about "noise" or "poor-quality" music or music that merely creates a difficult aural experience; we are thinking about something more intangible, like the mal-anatomy of some near Eastern vocalization systems or the click languages of Southern Africa, in which sound is produced without being represented through facial movements . . . a self-contradictory silence.

"Manipulating dreaming"

JH: Those are interesting experiences. You've said that your work before that had dream components. Do you mean drawing what you'd seen in dreams? Like what?

KA: Dreaming in my projects separates from surrealist methods of capturing or using the dream. The classic example of a "Don't bother, the poet is busy" sign on the poet's door during the night, from Walter Benjamin, is not really relevant to what I want to pursue here. Same with Andre Breton's automatic writing. Automatic writing is obsessed with assimilating dreams to writing, but in reality it captures a dream only through its fragmentary narration, which is visually digestible more or less in contrast to the surrealist's intentions.

I am interested in the art of manipulating dreaming and its outcomes. Memory, documentation, and time are important components, especially memory. I am intrigued by the possibility of using the artist's memory or memory pragmatics, which includes scanning and storing oblivion and continuous retrieval. In short, it involves developing a neurotic—neurotic because I am aware of it to an extent—and pragmatic way of accessing memory that in time can no longer distinguish or separate dream from what has taken place. This not only documents the dream, in the sense of something actualized, but also gives me the opportunity to document the dream as its own concretely actualized twin, documentary event.

I'm into experiments in manipulation, such as creating alternate histories of my makeup through dreams that are more inclined toward change than grounded history, and I'm into consciously creating art in dreams. There is the dilemma that occurs once you wake up and there is no trace of the art. I've tried to authenticate the art I made in dreams by creating certificates and getting a New York notary public to validate them. I filled a whole wall of "proofs" as documentation, so they can simmer on the back burner over time, making them conceivable for others. But somehow they are still betrayers of what the art really is.

JH: I like that idea of neurosis, as an awareness of the limitations of one's own memory, almost like an interior haunting!

KA: I've been haunted for sure and I must pay the price I guess. . . .

"Documenting rather than diary writing"

JH: When you document something you've done this way, but consciously, it's a bit like how a writer chooses the consciousness of autobiography over the automatic writing of a diary. On the other hand, you've also described past projects as a diary and worked methodically like a diarist. You've done a daily project based on commuting by train, and you've used sheets of a telephone directory found while traveling as a ground on which to draw. Do you find the whole idea of a diary appealing, maybe as structure? As a starting point to make new identities? As a promise that each day provides a new variant?

KA: I tend to think of my work in terms of documenting rather than diary writing. The question then becomes what is the difference between diary and documentation? "I" is authenticated by the first-person narration or what can be called the Voice. A diary is only an automatic writing in terms of "I" and its monolithic consolidation—even if we are dealing with a basically diseased narrator or narration. This is not necessarily "I" in the sense of egotistic mongering or self-staging or self with minimal "I" as a first person. Really it can be any pronoun—The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, for example.

The problem is that narrator-units in general narrate the world through constraining correlations with themselves, and the affirmation of these worlds is the political affirmation of these limits. In the same vein, autobiography—despite the valid connections you made—falls into the same compulsory affirmation of its narrator-units.

On the other hand, chronological taxonomy of time is not necessarily diaristic. Archivism with a manipulative edge also follows the same logic of time. Documentation of dreams and alternate realities or histories requires a disciplinary approach to time. In fact, chronological time, what we call clock time, can be another basic component for something I mentioned before—the rigorous bastardization and manipulation of a dream as an actual experience. Documenting the alternate or dream can be authenticated not only by a notary seal, but by other means, too, and one of the most important is archivization.

Archiving uses the logical and socially plausible or believable attributes of time like past, present, and future as taxonomic tools in the process of documentation, inventing actuality by taking time-related taxonomy to its extreme. Unlike the diary, which is dependent on a chronology of past, present, and future, documentation is capable of manipulating chronology through archiving, to render the alternate or the dream actual as actually occurred or happening.

Documentation and archiving together pull out and actualize alternate times—catatonic modes of time existing only in dream. They give the whole of documentation and archiving an unhealthy chronological structure, in the direction of a forgery of events. Without such a chronology, documentation can exist and work, but if it is armed by chronology, it can achieve a more effective level of sorcery and manipulation.

"A person never really has a stable history"

JH: In a sense, it's a like a diary without the authentication, which is ironic because one associates documentation, too, with the search for a stable history. And we're always aware of narrators and images of women who could be you. As you said before, there are points of view in the plural. Is it about playing with identities, like a novelist, to tell stories? Is it like finding out who you could be?

KA: I like the concept of "stable history," and it is accurate to call it a "search," because I don't think you can ever find a stable history—especially in territories like politics, religion, and the study of history itself. The world has started to realize that histories and alternate logics or territories are emerging and growing parallel to stable history. In some cases they even contradict stable history or are more effective in constructing new formations.

Documentation only temporarily works to create a stable history, for the whole point of archiving is that, after some time, stable history is pushed to the background as the need or necessity for new taxonomic tools emerge. In this kind of documentation, it's more a matter of case study than narrator. For example, criminal records might be classified according to the chronology of history. Yet eventually, with the quantitative and qualitative growth of the archive, the need for chronology becomes less, as new systems are needed or developed to retrieve and authenticate these records. It is as if the archive exists outside a chronological form of time.

On an individual level, a person never really has a stable history. Even for people who appear to live the most grounded lives, their personal history is in constant flux . . . full of holes. As for me, this search is a twisted remembering, because it's dealing with memory holes—or what I call neurotic memory. Actualization or interacting with this memory in a way produces inconsistencies that are cast off by stable history. I guess you could say that my Web site has been a place to test out and create a perceived stable history, which in fact has many holes both fixed and gaping.

"Numbers perforate boundaries"

JH: We've talked about history, diaries, even music. Each has its own sign system, but all very much like writing. You also incorporate numbers and letters in your images. Do you see them as pure shapes themselves, as ways of broadening the kinds of signification you can do with images, or something else?

KA: I think that numbers in my works lose their power of signification in the sense of pure shapes and pure painting components. That's because the "main theme" of each painting—let's assume there is such a thing—is laid out according to different, personal processes of visual actualization. Of course, we have already talked about actualization in my works, and the shape of numbers or their signifying characteristics must be subjected to the same processes of alternation and bastardization.

Take the number 2. It can be visualized according to the plane by which a wall in my paintings is signified or visualized. On that plane, the number 2 can appear as the shape of a letter or as an intricate mass resembling something.

The numbers in my paintings operate in different ways, but mostly they are references to lost footnotes, indexes, or memory holes—things that are potentially prone to change, sabotage, and corruption, masses of oblivion that can be remembered or filled in different ways and by different contents and that are capable of prolonging the mentioned actualization process in the direction of forgery of events. Numbers map the enigmatic obscurities around each drawing or painting, by linking them to limitless references—diverging and distracting possibilities from the so-called main theme in each and every painting. I've found that numbers perforate boundaries.

"Intuition rather than mysticism"

JH: In all the things we've spoken about, from contemporary philosophy, documents to memory holes, there's an awareness of systems, contemporary philosophy, and their gaps. I sense that you feel a shared spirit in a lot of writing about art, but also that you work intuitively. Where does philosophy let off and instinct or even mysticism take over?

KA: I agree with you that there is a shift or divergency in my works from philosophy and its intellectual pursuits. I think the shift is more like a twist, in the sense of a twist in horror movies, and it happens when I take the intellectual or philosophical presuppositions in their negative meaning very seriously. By "very seriously," I mean I let them enter and take over my everyday life in an obsessive way. . . . Maybe this is the only way to disarm these presuppositions regarding philosophical disciplines, because when they find pragmatic opportunities, they start to malfunction on a very actual level.

Consciousness of the capacities of philosophical disciplines does not necessarily signify their wrongness. Rather, it puts me in a critical relation with these intellectual systems and how they operate. The shift, then, does not signify a discontinuity between philosophy and what comes after in my works, but highlights philosophy and its divergent twists.

I prefer intuition rather than mysticism as a description of how I interact with these twists, because these twists or malfunctions I have sparked do tend to get out of control. And when things get out of control, disciplines of consciousness and intellectual apparatuses are practically useless, if not contributing to mayhem. I think mysticism is not appropriate here because, although it has a strong affinity with intuition, its ultimate goal is reducing that mayhem to a coherent unknown or absolute enlightenment, something that can be known or interacted with sooner or later. Mysticism is the myth of contemplative or disciplinary intuition.

"A sentient vehicle"

JH: Of course, one common subject in horror movies is also in many of your images, a woman's body. Is that about other stories that need telling?

KA: A woman's body in my works is more a carrier for my experiments with different terrains and their narrative possibilities as a woman, a person who is conscious of her womanhood, rather than a woman who puts her body at the center of her consciousness. This carrier is not just a vessel to carry and deliver my experiments, but a sentient vehicle that transforms both the undertaken experiments and brings itself to metamorphoses based on its peculiarities as a result of interacting with these experiments, which might be genderless in themselves. Horror movies mostly bring the woman's body into the fold of metamorphosis as a condition, not seeing that metamorphosis is a deviation from countless possibilities that a woman's body perpetuates in regard to every experiment it takes on each day.

Women's studies continues to become more conscious of woman's body, which I think is at the cost of ignoring or domesticating the genderless or more complex formations that are emerging. Established or conservative old systems (religion, family, motherhood, etc.) are becoming irrelevant, because they are losing a traditional format that once inspired women's studies through opposition or resistance.

This focus on understanding the different operation levels of woman's body sacrifices the significance of what is "outside." Neglecting things that appear irrelevant or not in direct connection to woman's body and gender relationships has stripped women's studies of its sharpness or vigilant intelligence. In other words, all the economical, social, political, and even artistic possibilities that are quietly influencing gender problems at present and in the future will become dominant systems.

Recently I was searching on the Internet and contacting friends to find a woman to do a blurb for one of my projects that was not directly related to women but had political and artistic potentialities. I couldn't find a qualified woman whose range of scholarly interests was outside of women's studies. It is as if the question of being a woman is the question of being an ethnic minority or a race. Women's studies has become similar to ethnographical research within gender. Its minority is the consequence of this deliberate transformation rather than a subversive or dynamic cause.

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The interview concluded December 22, 2006. You may also see the interview on her Web site, along with an introduction to her and her art. And check out my own additional past looks at feminism and dreams, art and text, woman as cyborg, and Breton's "Desire Unbound."


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