Edge of Vision: An Exchange with John Duncan

John Duncan is an artist that has been working in the realm of art-as-experience since the mid-1970s when he lived in LA. His work has gone through many different forms and mediums as time has progressed, moving from direct actions at the start of his career to carefully articulated audio work as a primary outlet currently. Early on in his career Duncan found himself exiled from LA after performing a specifically transgressive performance piece, BLIND DATE. I find Duncan interesting due specifically to his insistence on art being affective, and how he has moved through and explored this idea throughout his career. The idea of affect is a powerful force no matter what medium it’s applied to, and Duncan is a master of transcendence, of reaching new feelings.

A couple weeks ago I emailed John Duncan with the request to ask him a few questions, and he was kind enough to comply and provide fantastic answers:

M. Kitchell:I have an interest in the consideration of “the artist” as a shaman, or the artistic practice as a shamanistic practice. What I specifically mean by this refers to “the belief that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds,” and the idea that “the shaman also enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community” (wikipedia). You have specifically expressed the idea that much of your praxis is geared towards learning, in a sense a self-education. It seems that an extension of this, in the presentation of the work itself, is the interest in a mode of communication, a way to share the experience and the knowledge learned. In some of your performance & installation work, it could be said that you are subjecting the audience to as much stress, or, perhaps, negativity, as you have submitted yourself to. There seems to be the intent of arriving at, say, a new consciousness, a discovery, an advancement. I think there’s generally an expectation of a distance between the audience and the work of art, but much of your work seems to deny that distance, it seems to specifically violate it. This denial of distance is not specifically something unique to your work, but much of your early work (SCARE, MOVE FORWARD, MAZE) seems to aggressively challenge this distance. Can you talk a little about this, how important the communication of an experience is to your work?

John Duncan:The essence, especially now, is not so much the communication of an experience as it is the experience itself. In all the works you mention, the point is to somehow get spectators to at least meet me halfway as participants. To make it clear that the extent the work reveals itself to a participant depends on whether or not the participant allows it to do so, on each person’s attitudes and character.

The difference between my earlier and more recent events is that in the past participants were usually trapped and forced to deal with a unique situation that they weren’t at all prepared for, which was essential to the event. Once trapped, it was up to the individual to interpret the situation as a threat or as a chance. Now, participants are free to leave at any time. They are given a condition to accept or not. For the person who does accept, decides to follow their curiosity, the work continues to open and develop. If the person refuses, everything stops there for them, the knowledge that they couldn’t let go is what they take home.

Throughout your oeuvre one can find what seems to be a repeated resistance to language, or at least an insistence that preferences experience over language. Even on your website, the descriptions of each event, performance, installation, etc., are remarkably brief, even vague at times. Though at the same time, language does specifically play a role in certain pieces. More recently I know that CD booklets included in some of your audio releases have included texts which read almost as poetry. I wonder if you’d talk about your relationship with language, how it affects your work and what role it plays within your work, even now.

The work is always about insights, hoping to invoke or describe them. Sometimes they come solely through language, sometimes solely by avoiding it. The work determines an approach that’s appropriate, whether or not words expedite or block the experience. Especially when describing an event or installation, I tend to prefer to avoid writing down too many, hoping that the ones that are used help the reader imagine what it was to be there than to be a journalistic report. You’re not the first to say they’re sometimes vague, so we see how well it works…

In a 2007 interview with Steve Peralta, you mentioned limited edition books you made while you were in LA. What was going on in these books, could you talk about them?

The first was under 10 pages, covers included, with photo paper exposed to a specific shade of gray on the left and a phrase that seemed appropriate on the right. On the left, light gray; on the right ‘A SAD SONG’. On the left, dark gray; on the right ‘TRUST ABUSED’. On the left, black; on the right ‘A BITTER STORY’. I made maybe 10 copies of it, don’t remember if it had a title.

AGAIN was a photo-narrative, in part a performance for still camera: in the process of getting drunk, I get into an intimate love-hate struggle that ends with shooting myself in the head, then waking from it. One copy was made, which I still have.

PHALLUS was a 20-page series of collages made with images from science magazines, maps, texts of dreams, interviews from American soldiers talking about Vietnam. I made 50 black + white photocopies of it, all given to friends.

To continue with the idea of the book, I’ve read the digital version of your “on-going book” THE ERROR probably a hundred times, and my response to it is repeatedly a realm of affect that I can’t assign to any other work of art (text or otherwise) that I’ve specifically encountered elsewhere. It’s one of the most fantastic combinatory efforts I’ve ever seen. Is it still an on-going project?

It’s evolved, I guess. At this point it’s The PLASMA MISSIVES, dreams written in my blood on heavy sheets of thick paper.

What are you after with THE ERROR?

To make a book that invokes a logic unique to each reader, that to seek a universally applicable rationality always fails to account for some level of consciousness. To render the steps for getting there hidden and secret, by printing the entire text in black on heavy black paper, that have to be read by moving the page until the letters are reflected enough to recognize them.

One of the thing that fascinates me about your work is your obsession, or at least insistence, upon the hidden. In consideration of your work with pornography, you’ve stated that “Pornography shows aspects of a culture that the culture wants to deny, to keep hidden.” An early work of yours that I find particularly incredible via the inscription alone is SECRET FILM. Even more recently, with your video THE TAILING, you seem to keep on the edge of vision, refusing anything fully identifiable or representational to appear. It seems like there is a thematic insistence within your oeuvre to touch the inaccessible, to access the hidden. Is this true?

Yes, absolutely.

A number of interviews that I have read with you begin by asking about your past. The biographic picture you paint includes a Calvinist upbringing, a life of relative isolation (in the sense that you spent more time with books than other children), and frustration, despair. You then left the relative expanse of the Midwest and attended CalArts. You’ve expressed that your work was thematically, perhaps, affected by this upbringing. Some of your earlier works (I’m thinking here specifically of EVERY WOMAN, FOR WOMEN ONLY, and BLIND DATE) address misogyny and, for lack of a better term, “male guilt.” I’m always hesitant to assign a psycho-analytical/historical reading to a work of art, but I’m wondering specifically what your intentions were, if they were a response to the environment you found yourself in in LA, or if the work is especially reactionary to your upbringing, or, rather, if the work was exclusively made towards your idea of revealing a truth via experience?

The short answer is ‘yes’. Imagine a mix of all of these elements competing for focus in the mind of a man in his early 20’s, trying to sort out who he is.

Who was the audience for your more specifically (physically, perhaps) transgressive works? You’ve noted that the audience of SCARE was two of your friends. When you began working, was your audience primarily other artists? What about when you were in Japan?

For the first several events in LA, audiences were mainly friends and people we knew in common. BUS RIDE was held on LA city buses in operation with me driving, NO and HAPPY HOMES were both live radio broadcasts. Japanese audiences paid at the door, tuned in to RADIO CODE pirate FM broadcasts or accidentally discovered TVC 1.

Who is your audience now? Do you have anything invested in who your audience is, or is your concern still the affective conduit the work offers, regardless of who it is that is experiences it?

This latter is an eloquent answer to your question. The short answer is: people who are curious.

After WET magazine ran some information on BLIND DATE in their March/April 1981 issue, a man wrote a letter into the magazine regarding the piece. The letter reads as follows:

What I find interesting about this letter is that it demonstrates that a man has had to a similar experience as the experience you undertook with BLIND DATE (albeit the entire process involved in your execution seems more articulated & specific), though his reaction, tainted perhaps by LSD, seems to diverge from yours. You’ve mentioned that you’ve more or less come to terms with the event. I think this is at least partially a demonstration of the difference between the experience of the the piece itself & the reaction to the piece itself, mainly in the fact that there’s a ritual catharsis involved in the act, whereas (as opposed to much of your other work), the only direct experience the audience had with the piece was in the documentation & the experience of the audio. Whereas this man, at least ostensibly, has actually experienced the act which your work carries the message of. Do you think this man would be in a privileged position of response to your work?

Is anyone?

I have a series of questions relating your work to other artists & filmmakers.

I’d like to talk, briefly, about some connections I see between your work and the work of others. The first artist that I find somewhat parallel to you is Terry Fox. He began as a painter, attained some notoriety in the Bay Area performance art scene due to the provocative nature of his performances (many of which, in a mode I feel similar to your own work, seemed to be after a sort of impossible transcendence), and then he left the US, and began focusing on works primarily involved with audio. The other artist I think of when I think of your work is Gregor Schneider, who of course is also more insistent upon the experience or the encounter with the ‘art’ than the art object itself– Schneider specifically with his interest in abject spaces, the aura of a room, the uncanny. Do you feel a kinship with either of these artists? My comments here are in fact reductive, and I’m also not specifically offering any direct connection, I’m more probing the possibility of your consideration.

I like their work, and was fortunate enough to meet Terry Fox several weeks before he died. Kinship is a different issue. Terry Fox’s work shows that he was a genuinely gentle soul, which for better or worse I cannot imagine ever being able to say about myself.

Similarly, I know that you’ve mentioned that you no longer consider yourself influenced by the Viennese Aktionists as you were when you began your career, but I’m curious as to the nature of your interest specifically in Rudolf Schwarzkogler. I ask because, out of all the artists who gathered under the heading of the Aktionists, it was Schwarzkogler whose actions were, arguably, the most “artificial.” They were staged only for still cameras, and rarely performed publicly. It seems like Schwarzkogler’s work was more symbolic (though his writings do seem to be the most in tune with the ideas of a shamanism I’ve outlined above, opposed to a Reichian catharsis). Your work certainly seems more affective of the physical (especially BLIND DATE) than Schwarzkogler’s potentialities.

Schwarzkogler also seems, at least to me, to have been the most sincere among the Aktionismus group — maybe because he died young… The tableaux he created were for intimate audiences, each participant among them left to absorb the work effectively alone, without the comfort of being in a larger group or crowd.

Are you familiar with the pink films of Hisayasu Sato? He probes ideas that some of your work explores, and things you’ve said about your JOHN SEE/TVC 1 videos strike me as similar. Is there a way for Western audiences to see the John See videos? It seems there was a PAL release of TVC 1 that’s no longer available; will it ever be available again?

It would be great to see authorized re-releases of these videos. As far as I know, there are no plans for that for any of them. Anyone who’s interested is welcome to get in contact… Sato and I haven’t met; just found out recently about him. Tokyo film school graduates in the 80’s were often keen on producing special effects for splatter films, on making splatter films to produce special effects. With emphasis on the sensational, which I’ve never really cared about.