by Joe Milazzo
When I first met Nicholas Grider in 2007, while we were both scribbling our individual ways towards the completion of the MFA in Writing at the California Institute of the Arts, I had no idea that he was a polymath. All I knew was that his aesthetic antennae, so to speak, were extraordinarily sensitive—you could almost see them in a perpetual state of inquisitive agitation—to the deterministic force of even the most banal, seemingly stale and “normal,” thus both neutral and essentially without value, language. What I have since learned is that Nicholas Grider is one of those rare artists who understands the mix of titillation, abjection, terror and addiction that defines our species’ relationship with representation. (It is no accident, I think, that one of Nicholas’ more recent projects is an investigation of the typographical and verbal tropes of heavy metal of a self-consciously Satanic orientation.) In order, as he says below, to decipher and explore what representations are, to uncover how they mold our sense of the real, and, perhaps most important, to discover if there is, in fact, any original, stable reality to which representations may be traced, Nicholas has chosen to disperse his talents across a wide array of materials, practices, modes of expression and conceptual points-of-view. Polymaths, especially polymaths as prolific as Grider, tend to arouse critical suspension; Nicholas, incisive to a fault, would probably appreciate that the cliche “Jack of all trades and master of none” best captures this attitude. However, there is nothing haphazard or dilettantish about Nicholas Grider’s work. If his ouevre, to quote from his “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” is “Everything Everywhere All the Time,” it is so only insofar as it grapples, and bravely, with the near-catastrophic desire latent in whatever is simultaneously advertised and delivered by that promise.
Nicholas was kind enough to take time out of his busy photography/ novel-writing/ music-making/ fund-raising/ Lord-knows-what-else schedule in the early days of this new year to answer a few questions about his recent activities, his position with regard to media, his understanding of “the male,” as well as his experience in the realm of impersonations that is the Internet in our day and age.
JM: You’re currently at work on an art project of almost massive scale: “The Masculinity Project.” What attracted you to take on something of this scope? What aspects of your experience working on it have most help sustain the effort(s) it requires?
NG: I have a habit of biting off more than I can chew, so the project is massive (and constantly changing) but it’s a continuation of visual work I’ve done earlier that’s related to masculine gender-coding, whether it’s the idea of the suit and tie as uniform or whether it’s role-playing an embedded photojournalist at a giant Mideast simulation. The current project is designed to be modular, so even though it’s massive the constituent parts can be accomplished relatively easily, at least most of the time, and if for some reason one segment doesn’t work it can be dropped and replaced by something else; a portrait shoot involving a lot of models might be dropped, for example, in favor of a shoot I’m doing where I’m having suburban Milwaukee police simulate arresting me. So the main thing is maintaining flexibility and constantly thinking of new ideas and new approaches; those things will help sustain any large project.
JM: Would you consider yourself something of an improvisor? Is improvisation itself something you are also interested in exploring in your work (especially your musical endeavors)?
NG: I see my work as a careful balance between precise planning and complete improvisation, regardless of the medium. The music I make is constructed from meticulously edited .wav sample loops, but those meticulous loops are thrown together in an improvisatory way. My approach to art is similar—I carefully planned my involvement with the Army’s simulated Mideasts but had to think on my feet once I actually got there. Improvisation is necessary both when something goes wrong and as a tool to use to broaden the scope of a work or open up new territory you might not have thought of during planning stages.
JM: Perhaps relevant, perhaps not, to the culmination of “The Masculinity Project” is this idea I have, and have long had, that one of the remarkable and unprecedented aspects of the Internet is that it has made feasible the undertaking of what are, for all practical purposes, infinite artworks. For example, the content areas of your own website are sort of endlessly expandable. Do you find that, more and more, your work is moving in a modular direction, and, if so, how much might that have to do with the kind of “web presence” artists these days have to maintain?
NG: I think my work is moving in a modular direction; I’ve been called “scattered” as an artist because of a broad range of interests and styles and I’m working now to try to compose various projects into larger but still flexible structures, so an art show, for example, could come from the same body of work and fill a 10′ X 10′ room or a 50′ X 50′ one. And the appearance of modularity is also driven by how an artist chooses to present his or her work on the web; because I work in small bodies of work and the style and subject matter changes frequently, my work is perhaps more meaningful as “projects” than as finished bodies of work.
JM: Though “The Masculinity Project” is largely photographic in nature, it is truly multi-disciplinary and multimedia, and involves elements of life drawing, collage/ assemblage, writing and performance. And you yourself are active many disciplines and nearly all media. How do you define the term “medium / media,” and how do you see yourself, as an artist, in relation to media?
NG: For me, the question of medium is a completely practical one. I’m usually interested first in exploring an idea, and then comes the question of how best to explore that idea—it might be a photograph, it might be a performance, it might be a short story. I don’t claim to be an expert in all media but with formal training in art, writing and music I have some of the tools you need in order to be able to be very pragmatic about what medium is the best vessel for a particular idea. So as an artist I would see myself (perhaps pretentiously) as “post-medium” in that I’m not committed to any one medium in order to explore the ideas and relationships that interest me.
JM: Vis-a-vis our post-media aesthetic landscape, what, for you, does it mean to be a photographer in an age of digital images and image processing?
NG: I know many photographers my age who are doing everything they can to try to make a photograph unique, whether it’s through darkroom manipulation or by treating prints with chemicals or cutting into them, for example. My philosophy is the opposite: I see the ubiquity of cameras and the Internet as things worth exploring and engaging with; I’m more interested in a viewer looking at the content of one of my photos than seeing it as “art” so I don’t mind at all being part of a horde of digital photographers producing an enormous cloud of images.
JM: There’s a fascinating tension in “The Masculinity Project” between “mere” documentation and social or cultural intervention, or at least provocation. (I feel this tension as well in your various “Fake Iraq” projects.) Is this a distinction that you find useful, or make in connection with your work? Do you see yourself as a socially or even politically engaged artist?
NG: There’s a famous quote by the artist Adrian Piper that I’m paraphrasing here but it’s along the lines of “all art is political, whether explicitly or implicitly.” I really believe that to be true in any medium so even the simple act of documenting something can become a way of being engaged, and becoming engaged politically can be a form of art. It goes back to the question of what’s the best way to present an idea, as well as what limitations I’m working with—sometimes documentation is all I can do, and sometimes I can do something more involved. I do see myself as a politically and socially engaged artist not because all my work addresses those topics directly all of the time but because I’m interested in trying to explore and decipher the world we live in, and it’s a social and political world.
JM: I see that relationship between coding and constraint as being a major theme (if you will) in your work. Could you expand a bit upon the relationship between the two, and how they relate to the deciphering and exploration you mention?
NG: Because my ambition outstrips my reach, a lot of my work engages the idea of metonymy—the idea of the stand-in rather than the idea of the work I produce as metaphorical. This allows me access to worlds and ideas that I couldn’t access in practical terms, so that kind of coding is important to me. Constraint is also important but in a more practical way: I could go on endlessly on a given project so self-imposed constraints, even physical ones, play a role in what I do as an artist in order to structure the work I’m making. Physical constraint pops up again and again in my work as metonym for social or institutional constraint, and the constraint I apply to myself is a stand-in for many other kinds of constraint that we live with on a daily basis. So constraint is part of what I’m exploring when I’m exploring masculinity, especially, because of both self-imposed and philosophical constraints placed on the “male” in our culture.
JM: The conversation about gender in the early 21st century has been marked, in part, by serious debate about the biological necessity and cultural relevance of “the male.” How would you describe the current state of American masculinity? What, if any, future do you think men have?
NG: I’m not sure what the future of “the male” is, and that’s partly why I’m interested in it. I think what we’re beginning to see is a reconnection of men with their bodies, a disruption of centuries of thinking (in the west) of men as primarily rational and conceptual and disembodied; I’m not sure where that reconnection is headed or what might be the result but I’m interested in finding out, so a lot of my work has focused specifically on the mechanics of the male body—my own body as well as the bodies of contemporary men—as our culture views them.
JM: What do you think accounts for the contemporary relevance of this reconnection with the body? If we can;t necessarily see where’s it’s headed, might we at least be able to say something about where it has come from?
NG: That reconnection with the male body, like everything else, has become commodified. Male bodies are sold back to us the same way, now, that female bodies have been for centuries, and in our overdriven market economy the male body as object is up for grabs for anyone who can use it to any end. I can’t say for sure but I think it’s our consumer culture that has produced this side effect of reconnection now that, increasingly, men see themselves as objects as much as concepts.
JM: Like many artists and creative individuals (including myself), you’ve turned to Kickstarter as a fund-raising platform for your various projects. What has your experience with that website been? Do you see any artistic possibilities in the platform itself?
My experience with Kickstarter has been one of ambivalence; I think the concept of microfunding is a good one and I think a lot can be accomplished that way outside of an ossified system of grants and private or public funding. I haven’t been able to reach the goals I’ve set for myself, though, so I have yet to see Kickstarter actually work. And I hadn’t thought of the site itself as an artistic enterprise but I think the ideas it’s based on—microloans and microfunding—could be investigated pretty fruitfully themselves, and have been on at least one occasion by the artist Elana Mann, in which a live audience gathered, donated money, then collectively decided who in the room could best use it.
JM: Well, as Lewis Hyde has written, artists have long participated in a “gift economy.” To see something so informal and contingent begin to be formalized… I understand your ambivalence. Sites like Kickstarter also expose the actual business of artistic production to a regard that, while it may feel perfectly ordinary i the world of Facebook, Twitter, etc. is not quite like anything artists have ever had to contend with. (For more on this topic, see author Amber Sparks’ recent post at the blog BIG OTHER.) In your experience, has social media been “good” or “bad” (or
“other”) for your practice?
NG: In the time since this conversation first began, I have actually met my Kickstarter goal, so my outlook has changed quite a bit, of course. And my work isn’t necessarily about social media so I don’t think it has been affected by it much other than the original intent of social networking—the “networking” side of it. Working at a remove in Milwaukee, social media allows me to broadcast my practice in a way that would be unthinkable ten or even five years ago.
JM: For the past year or so, you’ve split your time between Milwaukee and Los Angeles. What impact, if any, has your own personal geography had on your work?
NG: Living in Milwaukee and working in Los Angeles has been a headache; I don’t want to knock Milwaukee but it just isn’t large enough to have certain cultural benefits and networks of peers that Los Angeles has. My preference would be to live in LA full-time but that hasn’t been an economic possibility yet. In terms of the effect both locations have had on my work, I think the idea of the west and spending time in the high desert has had an effect on my sense of space and possibility (sorry if that’s vague) but in more direct terms both cities have had a strong influence on my writing, acting as both setting and sometimes almost as character in my novels.
JM: When I first encountered your work, you were concentrating largely on poetry. It seems as if, over the past year or so, that your attention has turned towards fiction and the novel in particular. Is that fair to say? If so, what accounts for that shift?
NG: It has actually been a swing back and forth between the two forms. I wrote my first novel in 2003/2004, and after that I didn’t write fiction for years and wrote poetry instead; now the pendulum has swung back I haven’t written any poems in years but work on fiction on a daily basis. I’m not sure why this shift happens other than that fiction, for me, takes years to germinate, so in those gaps I write poetry, which is a lot quicker on its feet.
JM: If time, money, etc. were no constraint, what project or projects would you most like to undertake?
NG: My first project would be to move back to Los Angeles and get the things any artist wants: a studio, better equipment, etc. And right now I’m thinking about small, achievable projects but if money were not an issue the first things I’d do would be to apply to embed in Afghanistan to finish that body of work and to coordinate video shoots that push forward ideas in my photographs but on a Lady Gaga kind of budget. That, and because I haven’t tackled the medium yet, make a full-length film, or at least hire people who know how to make one from a halfway decent screenplay I would provide them.
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