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Interview with Lucy Ives
I did this interview with Lucy Ives in 2014. I really liked how it turned out, but it was never published. With her permission, I post it here for your enjoyment. Lucy stopped working at Triple Canopy in 2016. Her website catalogues her later work, which I recommend.
You are the deputy editor of the New York-based online magazine Triple Canopy (2007-) which, according to your website, "advances a model for publication that encompasses digital works of art and literature, public conversations, exhibitions, and books." I take this to mean you view "publishing" as a broader term than it is usually understood ("books"). It seems to me Triple Canopy is transgressing art disciplines, using digital media extensively, readings and panel discussions are given equal weight as your printed books, and you seem as interested in understanding and communicating the literature discourse as you are in printing the kind of literature you like. How would you explain Triple Canopy’s activities, the projects you are interested in publishing?
When I talk to people about the work I do with Triple Canopy and how it is related to a larger idea about literature and its production, there are two main points that frequently arise. They are interrelated, I think: 1. That arguments do not have to be made discursively, by means of propositions and written language and so on. 2. That arguments do not have to be made by authors.
I will explain momentarily how these two points relate to my work as an editor, but I want to note first that I am interested in literature as a space of contention: of discussion, disagreement, investigation, and discovery. I think that having this sort of space of contention is important for humans in all sorts of trivial ways—like, it can be a source of enjoyment and fun—and also in less trivial ways that I will leave up to the reader to supply, as I do not like to seem to make grand claims. Though I have trouble concretely defining "literature," and sometimes even like to pretend that it is no longer a useful category for us, when I do consider what I myself would want from literature or what I would like it to be, I find myself drawn to spaces outside of the book, as much as or even more than I am drawn to books (and I am very drawn to books). It’s for this reason that I might want to convene a public conversation, sometimes, rather than writing an essay; that I’m interested, for example, in the kinds of information we can obtain through discussion and other forms of collaboration, since these kinds of information are often distinct from the kinds of information we acquire by means of solitary reading and reflection. Similarly, I’m interested in the way in which a work of visual art may seem to make an argument: about how materials might be employed, about how space might be organized, about what we might be predisposed to value, celebrate, or ignore. This is to say that I am interested in kinds of gestures and expressions that seem to me to be literary in nature, but that are not always or exclusively located within literary texts (or books), that can be experienced in locations other than the literary text.
It’s not clear to me how I should diagnose my peculiar kind of interest in literature, other than to say that it seems to me to be critical in nature and that my work as an editor with Triple Canopy allows me to explore it. And, importantly, this criticality encompasses the format—physical or otherwise—by means of which literary content is published and thereby experienced. However, I am less concerned with fighting against ideas and modes of writing I dislike or disagree with than I am with creating contexts that will be generative of satisfying thinking and writing. So, I consider my work as an editor and publisher as both a means of distributing work and a means of attempting to generate the kinds of situations that will in turn provoke or generate new work. And I am happy for this to happen in various ways, across various media and experiential modes, and as the result of the efforts of various agents (i.e., not just me talking and writing and editing); I might even think that it has to happen with this sort of experiential variety and material diversity. To me this is very simply what the contemporary situation is.
Some publishers have with similar pieces of information about the contemporary situation come to the opposite conclusion as you have, and claim that the literary world needs to defend "the book," and/or make "the book" more desirable. What do you think makes "defending the book" an attractive position for them?
I think we assume that this is a reactionary position, that such publishers are being defensive, resisting change and so on. Probably it’s true that this is a mark of some kind of conservatism, but I think it’s also a symptom of a desire to have literary experience be constructed in a certain way—and this isn’t entirely about living in the past or wanting things to just "stay the way they are." Indeed, the next assumption we’d probably make is that there is a desire to control supply and distribution and so on, on the part of "bookists," though of course proprietary e-book formats are also a way of exercising this sort of control and are probably more pernicious. The codex is a very good way of organizing information. Print also feels good in your hand, looks good on a table, can be set on fire, can be forgotten on a train or airplane, doubles as a doorstop or pillow, accepts the marks of your pencil. I guess because of all these qualities I am not that worried about the future of the book; we have not done much to improve on print books so far. However, I do wish that people who want to defend books would take a closer look at what American public libraries are up to, for example, since the difficulty of caring for, sharing, and storing large quantities of books is not something that public institutions may continue to be up for if private interests continue to try to convince them that they would have a much better and more efficient time of it if they simply de-accessioned all of their print holdings and taught their patrons how to use a Kindle. The book, as a kind of analog network (i.e., if we believe that all books depend on other books and texts for their existence and also reference other books and texts), can be a significant political good—simply because print reading is so much less easily tracked and surveilled. I’m also of the opinion that books have a special historical value because of the way in which they accept the marks of our use of them. I’m not saying that digital texts are made of Teflon, by the way; rather, that print, like humans, is physical in a simple sense, corporeal (again, I am by no means denying the physical reality of hard drives and servers and so on). All this is by way of saying that I am not against books nor do I fundamentally disagree with defenders of the book! I would merely like to draw a distinction between the desire to defend "the book" and the desire to defend certain kinds of freedom of information—in which freedom the book can very helpfully and significantly participate.
What kind of conditions does Triple Canopy create for literature, and what kind of literature do these conditions generate?
This always remains to be seen, but one significant thing to be said is that the magazine brings innovative writers—"difficult" writers, even—together with artists and designers who are also working in experimental and critical modes. As a magazine, we are quite devoted to the notion that culture progresses collaboratively; we want to find and develop audiences for challenging work that might not suit all mainstream tastes and also to treat this work elegantly and stylishly. We often find that artists and writers who enter into dialogue through a Triple Canopy project continue that conversation long after the work in question has been published. Similarly, we’re happy when the lines between writing and visual art blur a bit or become irrelevant, even. We want to create conditions in which writers and readers alike are patient with contemporary writing, in which literature can be complex and strange and highly intelligent and excessively pleasurable—all of which takes time, both on the side of composition and on the side of consumption.
A good example of Triple Canopy’s unorthodox approach to literature is the series of readings you organized January 2014. You invited well above one hundred writers and artists to read for 15 minutes each from Gertrude Stein’s novel The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress. The event lasted three days. What do you feel were the most interesting single readings, and what do you feel the series of readings as a whole did to your experience of the novel
This particular novel is very difficult to read by oneself. It’s very long and repetitive and almost needs to be read aloud to be understood. You might think about this as a fault of the novel, but when you consider how difficult it is to write a book that no one can read unless they read it aloud over the course of three days with 100 of their friends, you begin to see what a remarkable work of art this book is. So we read it to experience that and to experience, too, the very unusual idea about literature that this novel implies. And: I’m not really sure I have a favorite reader or readers! I do really like it when people who are reading crack themselves up or seem sort of astonished or amazed by Stein’s prose.
Fall 2013 Triple Canopy did a complete makeover of your website, during the work on which, according to an essay you wrote for Fence, you "were also required to imagine the ways in which (pieces) might be read, both semantically and spatially on the screen." I feel interested in what features you have added to your website to enhance readability of online works, and how you use the screen to suggest new ways of writing and reading digitally. Don’t be afraid of getting too technical.
There are a number of new features on the site, including a dramatically enhanced search function and re-conceptualized ways of viewing and navigating issues of the magazine, but I think what is most important to describe here is the layout system in which long-form literary and critical essays, as well as artists’ projects, are now designed. This layout system, called Alongslide by its designers, addresses the limitations of Web browsers, which suffer greatly when compared to the precision, stability, and information richness of print layouts (browsers have varying standards for display of text and images that can cause distortion of a given layout). Alongslide responds to this inconsistency by decoupling media objects from flowing text, enabling them to progress at different rates, and also provides a page-like reading or viewing experience by filling the entire available window or screen space. No matter the ultimate shape and size of the reader’s display, the proportions of the layout remain the same.
Alongslide, like the previous layout system employed by Triple Canopy, scrolls horizontally and allows elements to be arranged as if along a timeline. However, unlike the previous layout system, Alongslide also allows certain regions to scroll vertically, including image galleries, verse, and other kinds of writing that employ unconventional typography and resist being broken into columns. Employing both the X- and Y-axes of the screen, Alongslide consolidates the navigable content space into a unified plane, inviting a reader to explore by shifting conjoined panels; it’s an immersive experience. Projects may be further organized into visually distinct sections, which provide an overarching structure or present a series of vignettes. In some sections, a video may occupy the entirety of the screen, while in others the relationships between media may be more varied; customizable animations can be used to transition between sections.
I think all of these possibilities imply new ways writing can be organized and even reflect, excitingly, on its own format. Further information about Alongslide is available on our website.
In what ways are the writers/artists invited to participate in the online design of their projects?
This depends on the desire, inclination, and skills of the contributor. Some contributors come to Triple Canopy, seeing it as a platform to present digital work that they themselves have had a hand in designing; others have other interests and areas of expertise that they would like to see translated into the language of the site. The conversations we have with contributors are flexible and wide-ranging enough to include many different ways of relating to design.
Kenneth Goldsmith recently wrote that "the Internet, with its swift proliferation of memes, is producing more extreme forms of modernism than modernism ever dreamed of." New platforms for writing makes writing a bigger part of culture, and people today engage with writing in a maybe unprecedented way (e.g., via chats, status updates, emails and texts). How do you think this affects literature?
I think that literature has always been a space of imitation, reproduction, and repetition, and in this sense the "meme" (or the text message or status update or whatever example you like best) could be said to be participating in that or simply continuing something that has always been a part of the way that humans have dealt with images and language, in a more or less formal and/or social way. I suppose I am unusually unconvinced by arguments about how and why our time is radically dissimilar from other times or "more extreme" or more modern and newer and unprecedented and so on. Such ways of discussing phenomena and art-making seem particularly unhelpful to me because they ignore more significant forms of difference and disparity that shape how we write and communicate: Here I could be thinking of the very limited (and at times, to me, infuriating) ways a platform like Facebook allows us to compose and share text and media, or of broader questions of literacy and access to the Internet. I’m very interested in the ways in which social media and various online publishing platforms have shaped the way we address one another and deal in commonplace textual exchanges. I think that this is a key fact of our moment—and along with this come questions about who it is we think is listening or reading or looking, whether it’s the NSA or someone we care for or a broader public. To me, the most interesting thing about the meme is not so much that it is shared online and rapidly and so on, but that it is such an exquisite way of writing by means of cliché—of writing into clichés—and has a devoted audience; it reminds me more of certain 18th-century satirical literary exercises, even, than of anything associated with modernism, particularly since modernism was always pretty self-serious, laborious, and obsessed with its own originality, at least in America. I guess I would say that writing and commenting and other means of sharing text online have primarily served to diversify the modes of address we can imagine in writing, and this development is quite exciting from a literary point of view.
In what ways can the limitations of new social platforms generate new ideas in writing? Do you have any examples of these limitations being used in interesting ways?
I have friends who are great on Facebook and make that platform tolerable (some of them are actual friends). And there are, of course, numerous pleasures associated with social media. However, I’m probably more interested in what happens elsewhere, in reaction to these formal "limitations," on other sites and in other writing. In other words, the kind of reading that I do on Facebook is a kind of reading that I cherish somewhat less than the reading I do in someone’s poem about being on Facebook (I’m using prepositions very purposefully in this sentence, by the way).
I want to talk to you about your own writing as well. You publish some of your work on Triple Canopy, but your writing also appears other places. Your debut novel Nineties was published by Tea Party Republicans Press in 2013, and while I read it, I thought about the neutral, matter-of-factly language you employ. It reminds me of a child-like, maybe innocent, way of story-telling without literary pretenses, maybe best exemplified in the three-page-list of brand names and cultural markers from the nineties, but it also reminds me of the jaded less-than-zero-ish worldview of the affluent American teenager. I feel interested in understanding your choice of tone in the book, what made this an appropriate form for the subject matter?
There are a few things to be said about the tone of the novel, but I think it’s important first to note that the novel has a narrator, and that the narrator is also one of the characters participating in the story. The flat affect and plain, obsessively descriptive vocabulary employed by this narrator in her narration is very possibly a concerted choice made by the narrator herself; it’s how she chooses to speak, how she is best able to express the situations and events that she perceives. A quick explanation of the rationale behind this choice is that the world the narrator describes is one that is devoid of ethics and other modes of attributing value that are not related to consumer products (I’m not sure, for example, if it’s a world devoid of love, but it might be). The narrator is very good at describing the surfaces of things, but she is not very good at establishing any kind of distinct relationships or useful hierarchies between those surfaces or between those surfaces and herself. So, for example, it’s possible that she might have the same level of relationship with a brand like Clinique and with her parents, with an image of the model Kristen McMenamy and with an image of the L.A. riots. Certain fundamental distinctions simply aren’t being made, and thus the neutrality that you note, which is really a form of agnosticism or doubt. In order to defend herself against this doubt—which might even be a doubt about her own basic humanity and the humanity of everyone around her—the narrator clings to accuracy in description and to a kind of child-like refusal to editorialize or comprehend.
Having written this much I also want to add that it’s not always important to think of this novel as having characters or being written to describe the psychology of real humans. I like to think of the book as a kind of allegory—for a peculiar historical moment that continues to affect us and in which we may, oddly and anachronistically, still be living. So the events and persons and objects described might also be stand-ins for something else, for certain ideas about behavior and, again, value. That’s another reason for the flatness of the tone. Even beyond the concerns of the narrator I’ve just described it’s important to me, as the author, that the reader of this novel not become immersed in a purely sympathetic reading. I want you to see this book as a work of artifice. I want you to recognize it for the attractive fiction that it is.
Is this important in your work as deputy editor of Triple Canopy as well? It seems to me to be related to what you said earlier: that you want art to be "making arguments" and to be "a space of contention." What writing do you feel less inclined to work with at Triple Canopy, and how does this relate to you the idea of "space of contention?"
I’m less inclined to work on projects that feel fashionable but not thoughtful. Or: that aren’t risking anything. In fact, I think this is the most important criterion for me, when it comes to deciding what kinds of projects I would like to take on. It is very important to me that the work seems to be taking a risk, that it isn’t, for whatever reason, predictable, safe.
The title and cultural markers of the book sets the time to the nineties but the theme of the book, to me, is an exploration of the social dynamics between young girls on the verge of adulthood. While reading the book I was thinking of the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding-story where it seemed evil surfaced amidst something generally thought of as pure and/or innocent. In the book there is a grainy picture of two girls, both maybe about 15 years old, one of the girls looks towards the camera in a demonic manner, making me think of television shows where ghosts, or creatures from the underworld, are revealed only via security cameras, never to the naked eye. The credit card fraud central to the story brings to light the violence and malevolence in the young girls' world. So technology emphasizes and maybe also constructs new ways of "being a young girl." Today the landscape has changed, the subtle antisocial hints and hidden subversiveness of young girls are moved to different arenas, communicated by a different technology. In what ways do you think the central theme of Nineties could be told today? In what ways can contemporary culture and technology affect young girls’ lives, what modern day security cameras brings to light different ways of "being a young girl," you think?
This is a difficult question for me because I didn’t come of age at a time when text was such a part of social interaction. We had the telephone and so everything was about voice. I often wonder what it’s like to be surveilled/supported—what seems to me like quite an ambiguous dynamic—by social media as a kind of entry into socialization and friendship. Do kids intuitively feel these tensions themselves? I think they must. It’s an interesting thing, though, because I think you’re talking about a kind of image of a young girl as a contemporary hero or antihero. The young girl appears in the collective imagination both as a shock to the system (she is the one who would seem to benefit least from social norms; she is not a young boy and so is born automatically into opposition) and as a kind of reprieve (the young girl is a symbol of purity and hope; she is also to some extent outside the status quo, untouchable). I’m not sure what exactly this image of the young girl has to do with technology now, except that the Internet is full of images and certainly plenty of them are of young girls. However, I do think this image or figure of the young girl has something to do with how we think about progress; that the simultaneously revenging and saving qualities of the young girl communicate some of the ambiguity we feel about the machines we live with, which are themselves often treated as spectrally female. But do I think the story of my novel could be told today? I don’t know. There’s a kind of access to information now the lack of which—the want of which—drives the plot of the novel. In the 1990s there was a kind of ignorance and innocence about ways of life, about the movement of capital, about almost anything that one could Google or name that is no longer part of the way a significant part of the American population lives. Perhaps my novel takes a look at this ignorance/innocence just before its demise.