Poetry News

An Interview Series With Information as Material

By Harriet Staff

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The Conversant's Sofi Thanhauser leads off the first of three interviews with the editorial collective information as material (Nick Thurston, Craig Dworkin, and Simon Morris). "The series will explore the work of each of these three men both inside and outside of that particular collaborative framework. It is meant in part as a an exploration on the nature of collaboration itself, and as a meditation on the relationship between the individual artist and the artist acting collectively." Thanhauser talks to Thurston about extralinguistic content in performance, the relationship conceptual art has to poetry, his piece Status­_Anxieties (Some notes on Of the Subcontract), and much more. A bit:

[Sofi Thanhauser]: You told the students at RIT [Rochester Institute of Technology] that teaching was the part of your CV you are the most proud of. Is this just a line you use on students? Is it true? Either way, can you say more about the relationship between your teaching practice and your writing and publishing practices?

[Nick Thurston]: Yes, it’s true. I think it’s fair to say that all artists (writers, painters, dancers, whatever) are narcissists. One of the key early-career hurdles (which I suspect comes back around throughout your career, as the eternal return of the same, to be jumped again yet differently) is to figure out for yourself how you’re going make that narcissism productive rather than destructive. If you have much of a social conscience then your subjective answer needs to work across the practical, economic, ethical and imaginative levels as they mix in your way of living. Practically, I get a huge amount of pleasure and new questions thrown at me by spending time with my students and thinking with them about their work. Economically, I’m never going to make a living from just doing the things I most enjoy doing. Ethically speaking, I’m a socialist. Creatively, I’ve always worked collaboratively, most consistently as part of the editorial collective Information As Material since 2006. And across all of those levels, I care more than I should about helping to keep open un- or under-determined areas in our lifeworld for doing, thinking, writing, making and reading differently. I’m demanding as a teacher. That’s partly because of who I am and how I work, but it’s also because I teach from a couple of points of principle: 1) I’ll always take my students and their work seriously; 2) I don’t think it’s my place to tell my students what to think or make — it’s their job to create the future of our shared culture, and it’s my job to give them some controlled exposure to things that I think have the best chance of helping them to create the most interesting future possible; and 3) what matters more than them or me individually is the cultural field that we’ve chosen to be part of. Higher education is far from perfect as an industry but I have the license to let my “research” lead my teaching and, frankly, it’s much better than having a “proper” job.

ST: With regards to this idea that language is fundamentally conceptual: something funny happened while I was reading your book, Reading the Remove of Literature. The word instantiate kept coming up and I got curious about its relationship to the word substantiate so I looked it up on my smartphone, which was to hand (a proximity that is a reality of my reading practice if not one I’m proud of). The online dictionary definition for instantiate included the phrase to support, and I think it was because of this that an advertisement popped up for the website chinamoonbay.com, and specifically for a product offered on that site called the “Adjustable Plastic Paver Tile Support System,” which is a suite of plastic columns that can be used as structural supports for building decks or terraces. The whole chain of events seemed oddly like a Nick Thurston project to me, perhaps simply because you address and work with the weird logic(s) of the internet. Anyways, given that words themselves at one point or another emerged from the concrete world, the internet’s power to re-concretize almost seems like an act of reverse engineering. Is this relationship between words and matter anything like what you mean when you call language “fundamentally conceptual,” or is it something else entirely? Also, can you speak to the way the internet informs your understanding of language and what you want to do with it, or vice versa?

NT: What a funny chain of connections?! The way that algorithms re-sign a set of links between instances of text and user-behaviour to aggregate then estimate patterns of interest, which connect known words to non-fixed new meanings or definitional instances, can be really funny in a ‘pataphysical sort of way. Rightly or wrongly, I get nervous about poetic modes that are resigned to that comedy, be it via the Internet or chance operations or whatever — it’s a fun oblique strategy but quickly slips into to a tragi-comic, relativist mess. Plus, the arts aren’t pushing those extremes anywhere near as far as Network-native inventions like cryptocurrency or search engines. Steven Zultanski’s book-length poem Agony is one great example of how playing with the fixeds and variables in data comparison can be brilliantly exercised...