A Consciousness of the Luxury of Art: An Interview with Jon Leon

Last month I received a copy of the first issue of a new project by publisher James Copeland called Content, a series that releases uniform length and shape books each filled with “content” from an individual author without restriction. The first issue is by Jon Leon, a piece titled Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay Drink Fanta, which is at its most basic a series of photographs of the three famous women referred to in the title, manipulated and arranged by Leon throughout.

I didn’t quite know what to make of the book at first. I think I immediately thought, Why? But the book stayed out on my desk and I found myself continuing to look at it, and to think about the things Leon mentioned in the one page letter that accompanied the volume (reproduced here on Leon’s website), which includes the lines, “I wanted to talk about ‘the demented power of the lights,’ how literature is evil, the end of my ‘career,’ the end of the artists editions, my conceptual death, my simulation of life, my meltdown in print and on tape, my public facade, my disappearance from Los Angeles, my disappearance from the Atlanta scene, my disappearance from New York in the holiday of 2009. My resolution to ‘end this shit’ in 2010. To kill off the poems.”

Last week I had an email correspondence with Mr. Leon regarding the concept of the book, its assemblage, the context of creation and aging with creation, Lindsay Lohan, modeling, and disintegration in general, among other things.

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BB: I flipped through Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay Drink Fanta as soon as I got it in the mail, not really knowing the project of Content: to have a uniform issue in which an author has a set amount of book space to do whatever he or she might want. I looked at it, and began thinking one way, and then realized that context of Content, and felt a shift, and still feel shifting now. I’ll admit I’ve thought about the material more than I thought I might given its deceptive pop-culture nature. I guess my first question for you, Jon, is how were you approached about contributing, and how did the idea to fill your issue with these images of these ladies in various contorts of repeated image occur to you?

JL: I don’t think of Content differently because of its constraints than any other book publisher with their implicit constraints. Qualitative, aesthetic, financial, or otherwise. Content has less constraints than most publishers. This gave me the opportunity to do something I may not otherwise have been able to do, to develop a concept unhindered. More importantly, James Copeland shows a real commitment, not to a single manuscript, but to an artist’s or author’s entire practice. He trusts their vision and lets them do whatever they want. That’s super rare.

Some months after meeting James in Hollywood he contacted me while I was living in an old hotel down South. At that time I wasn’t getting out much except to smoke cigarettes along the wrought-iron balconies that overlooked the outline of the city. I had a housekeeper then, and I didn’t work much, so my days ran one into the other, an endless succession of scrolling tumblrs and catching up on classics by Jean Rhys or Fitzgerald.

I fell in love with the attitude of Showgirls years ago while living with my first wife in Georgia. I became intrigued by Lindsay’s attitude shortly after. Sometime while living in the hotel I watched Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45. Zoe Lund was super real in Bad Lieutenant, a movie she also co-wrote, but after Ms. 45 I really fell in love with her. I was especially intrigued with the fact that her character doesn’t speak at all in that film, although Lund is in the leading role. Lately, I’ve been thinking about models and conceiving of them through style yes, but through Baudrillard too. I always thought models would be great to be around and were truly the source of everything good in the world. Now that I work for a fashion company in New York City where in my day-to-day life and in my nightlife I sometimes run into models, I find they are really even better than I imagined. I think models are the only true artists.

When I started making video off-and-on in 2007 I was appropriating, screening the screen. I was told they looked like a Chinese or Mexican bootleg of Bridesmaids or some other pirated new release. I got better at this kind of “photography” and wanted to see it in a book, and to photograph some of my favorite actresses and models. Not only because they’re hot and talented, but because I wanted to know them that way. I want to work with them. I can’t work with Zoe obviously, but I would definitely work with Lindsay on anything. There is something Bruce Hainley said when talking with John Waters about the photographer Gary Lee Boas. “No matter how bad the star looks, you know that he still loves the star.” I feel that way about this book, even though it’s a dark book, made of copies of copies.

BB: You mention in the note that accompanies the book that you reached a will of resolution in 2010 “to kill off the poems” unto reaching “an unmediated communion with the audience.” It is interesting that there are almost no literal words here, beyond appearing in one image the phrase, “No signal.” There are also the words “MEN” and “Fanta” and “Especialidades.” Otherwise there are the faces of the women, and the Fanta. I wonder if you’d talk about perhaps what instigated or awoke and grew that feeling against the language of poetry, and if the use of these images accesses a different, less killed place in you, or perhaps a more killed place, and if this in some way has felt more “touchable” (as you also mention wanting in the letter) as an act.

JL: I think there is something like a notional subject present in all poems. Vaguely existential. When I’m talking about killing off the poems I’m not just talking about quitting poetry or killing the author, I’m talking about a paradigm shift in the way that we conceive of the artform. I’ve always thought of poetry as a lifestyle. This idea has evolved to include a phenomenological bent that is careless in its emphasis on total resignation to an immersive drift. I definitely feel the world becoming more touchable as I escape the page.

BB: You also say in the letter, “Can you reproduce the model until it’s disintegrated. I think no matter what I want I want to see this carried to the end. I want everything touchable right now.” At what point along is this piece in the disintegration? What would a total disintegration look like? What do you feel when you [the creator] touch this book as an object?

JL: Total disintegration looks probably like Kasmir. Someplace after the disaffection of art. Avalon. It’s a type of consciousness and an acknowledgment of one’s instrumentality. It’s the demotivation to create art or books because there’s no differentiation between one’s life and one’s poetry. But not in a theater of cruelty kind of way. It’s more of a sexualized energia. I think it’s a consciousness of the luxury of art. When it’s no longer artwork, it’s just art. The total disintegration ends in not having to create something to put between yourself and other people any longer, an oft beautiful but circuitous communication. It’s no longer photographing Lindsay, but having a Coke with Lindsay. It’s no longer feeling compelled, because there’s a certain peace in the air and you can just as easily lie back into a yellow thatched lawnchair in a pair of Oliver Peoples and watch the waves break along the coastline as make a thing. It’s knowing that a designer wetsuit can have as much gravitas as anything in Texte Zur Kunst. When I touch the book I feel all that. I feel like bringing it into the lawnchair with me, or the deckchair, and just thinking about them. Thinking about us. Our lives.

BB: I feel like certain kinds of people seeing this book would be angry: saying that you wasted their space/time, not acknowledging that this disaffection, particularly in with language. I’ve always thought that the minute you say something is art, that’s the quickest way to guarantee it is. Is this reception, positive or negative, important to you? Is there anything you’d say to someone angered by this work, or by any of your work? I’m thinking too of the mix of what could be called shock, which comes really from anything unexpected, in the language you produced particularly in your poem cycle (which correct me if I’m wrong, came after the Content issue?) Die With These Bitches?

JL: There’s a Youtube video of Amy Winehouse smoking crack. There’s a Youtube video of Saddam Hussein’s execution. There’s youth revolt in England. The IMF managing director may or may not have raped a maid. There’s an Arab Spring. There’s an album by Kanye West called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There’s really no reason for me to think that anything I do as an artist or a poet can be shocking. That kind of reception isn’t important to me at all. I just create what I feel moved to create. The function of waste is a part of the concept of the book, a theory of waste is in all my books, but that is meaningful.

In Die With These Bitches, which came out immediately before Elizabeth Zoe Lindsay Drink Fanta, I’m breaking through something personally and aesthetically. I was influenced by Avital Ronell’s Crack Wars and her reading of the literature of euphoria. I was also influenced by the aesthetic of the crack epidemic in the 80s. Things like lime green tank tops and red trucker hats and tight Lee jeans. What social workers would call the “inner city” — whatever that means. Right now I live a few blocks from where Notorious B.I.G. grew up and the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare has organic markets, French restaurants, designer coffee shops, bodegas selling European fashion magazines, and so on. But there’s still the ghost vibe of the inner city. It’s a kind of palimpsest of the ghetto. I see people stumble around the streets who look like they woke up from 1983 and they’re asking me for 75 cents for a slice of pizza and I’m like pizza’s 2.50 now. That presence is kind of inspiring to me. But Die With These Bitches is also an exploration of my own aggression, masculinity, misogyny, and sadism. I sense that in contemporary poetry women are far more engaged with their ugly feelings and pathologies than men are. I don’t believe because we’re literate or working in a high art context that we don’t feel these things. Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game is a masterful representation of this.

BB: I like the time shift element there; people stuck in another mode of self. It makes me wonder specifically with Content how you went about laying out the images as they are: if it was intuitive, or entirely preconceived, or whatever, for instance, to repeat the picture of Elizabeth licking the pole for almost half the book?

JL: I began with a lot of photos when I knew I’d be working with this material. There were some of Taylor Warren that I hated to let go for example. But as I sifted through the collection I found the images of Lindsay Lohan, Zoe Lund, and Elizabeth Berkley to have the most resonance. Their faces seem to convey a kind of hollowness in the images in the book that is open-ended, as if any narrative could be attributed to their existences. And I suppose that’s kind of what the media does to a certain kind of star. There’s an image and there’s copy to go with it. But it’s just copy. Without a personal connection to the person there’s no way to know all that is contained in a look. I chose to repeat the images because I imagined through repeated exposure to the same picture the viewer could come to know something about who these people are. Anything surmised from this study remains speculation, but still, there is an effort to understand the star as a person. I want to know them in that way.

Several of the images I photographed and rephotographed multiple times until the image washed out, almost losing all definition. These accumulate at the end of the book.

BB: Having entered the disintegration and reckoned with it, what comes after?

JL: Nothing– I hope. I think, for a while at least, myself, I can lounge among the ruins. Manipulated photography, fugitive materials, waste. I rather like the idea of an antithesis. Of dismantling, unmaking, not making, letting things pass and fall into obsolescence. I miss thinking. And I miss other people’s thoughts. I feel like there is a global psychographic system in which rapid cultural shifts can be felt or imagined — anticipated. I mean, maybe, if we can stop producing long enough to listen for it, we could be over.

Until Lindsay calls about that Coke.

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Jon Leon’s Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay Drink Fanta is available now as the first release of Content.