This month’s Oral History Initiative features Matthew Steinbrecher’s conversation with novelist and performance artist Dennis Cooper. Cooper discusses the impact of his life on his work, his long standing fascination with music, and the importance of supporting emerging artists. Audio + transcript below.
Artwrit: Today is Monday, October 29th. This is Matthew Steinbrecher for Artwrit speaking with Dennis Cooper. We are speaking via Skype, as Dennis is in Paris and I’m in Chicago. Thanks again for speaking with us today.
Dennis Cooper: Thank you!
This past summer, in March through June, in Amsterdam, there was an exhibition titled Closer: The Dennis Cooper Papers. How did this exhibition come about?
Well, as far as I know, there’s this place called Kunstverein Amsterdam, and I guess the guy who runs it is a fan and they specialize in doing exhibitions and programs and conferences and things about mostly artists who are literary in their bent. I think writers who they think are… I don’t know… difficult and maybe more obscure than the usual people. On my end I just was asked if I would do it and I was like, “Sure, I’m honored!” So then they contacted NYU, who has my papers and everything, and then they put it together, and I just went up there and did a few events with them.
Great! Yeah you mentioned NYU, I know in 2000 your work was celebrated and I guess explored somewhat at a conference at the Fales Library at NYU, and they now are in charge of your papers and the materials around there. How was your work acquired by them?
The Fales Library, which is the part of NYU that collects stuff, they have this specialty in downtown literature, art and performance. I only lived in New York, downtown, for a few years so I don’t know exactly why I fit, but…
You somehow fit the bill.
Yeah! But I did and through my agent they just asked if my papers were available, and they could be interested, and I was like, “Sure.” Because I was just clogging up my bedroom or whatever. There was a negotiation or something and they bought them and I basically put everything I had through all the years in folders and stuff and sent it off to them. And I continued to do that when I got my shit together to do it and then they marked the end, because I had that cycle, the George Miles Cycle, those five books, and when it finished they had a conference on the George Miles Cycle at NYU. They did an exhibition on my papers then, and then they had a night of lectures about my work by scholars, and then a night where op-artists and rock musicians, different people who like my work, performed my work. It was obviously very cool! [laughs]
I remember I’ve seen images online and there were readings done by John Waters, Thurston Moore, Stephen Malkmus, Bret Easton Ellis. That had to be quite surreal to kind of bring in this cast of people.
It was mind blowing, yeah. Sitting in the audience was pretty intense. Because obviously all those people are people I admire tremendously, so it was pretty huge.
For those reading who aren’t familiar with the George Miles Cycle, its composed of a series of five books. How about you introduce it.
Yeah, there’s five novels. The first one came out in 1989 and the last one came out in 2000 so it was just about ten years, or actually more in the actual writing. It’s Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide and Period, those are the five novels. And collectively I called it the George Miles Cycle.
And I think you even your most casual reader can pick up on, maybe not an overall system, but there is a very systematic use of language within these books. The content itself, while varying in subject from book to book, there’s such an intense and narrow focus on these common elements of this lost younger early-teenage boy, an older man or men waiting to exploit them, drugs and the unavoidable intertwining of sex, violence, and the possibility of death is always present. There’s such a coolness to the language that… I mean it’s very straightforward in a way. That language completely changes in some of your other books. I know in The Sluts it’s completely composed of these discussions that are taking place on a website in which men are reviewing their gay male escorts. And there it becomes… I mean, I think it’s just with so many narrators emerging there it becomes an issue.
[phone rings] That’s okay. [phone rings] Go ahead, sorry.
I read that The Sluts has been described as a black sheep cousin to the George Miles Cycle. What is the relation you see?
Yeah, I worked on The Sluts… I mean not constantly, but off and on for about ten years, and originally it was going to be Guide, the book that ended up being Guide was going to be it. Because at that point it did not take place on the Internet, it was very, very different. I thought that there needed to be a very strong resemblance between Frisk and the fourth novel, and so I was working with that and then I decided it didn’t need to be so paramount or blatant. So I was working on it and then I just completely changed my mind. Novels reflect what’s going in my life at the time a lot, those novels did. I’m very interested in music, and I’m very influenced by music… It was the time when rave culture was happening and I was enormously fascinated by that and excited by that and also early indie rock, which was also huge for me. I got more interested in dealing with reflecting the hallucinogenic… Utopian thing of rave culture and then the lo-fi thing of the indie rock bands that were interesting to me. I ended up putting The Sluts aside and I would go back to it and use that for Period.
But then when Period happened, because the books are for my friend George Miles, and one of the systems in it is that all the young characters in it are George. He’s in the first and last book and in the other ones he sort of mutates and transmutes into these other characters but they’re all him. The book is kind of this big tribute to my friend. But anyway, when I finished Guide I found out that he had killed himself ten years before. I didn’t know that. This was of course very, very traumatic because he was the most important person to me and I had lost track of him. The Sluts was completely wrong and I decided I had to build kind of this final tomb for him and also he had died, killed himself, and that had to be the end of the story, because that was what really happened. So The Sluts got put aside and then I kind of just worked on it, worked on it, I brought the Internet into it. It just took a really long time and finally there was a certain point where I completed it. But it has the same structure, physical structure, as the books in the cycle.
You have touched on music, or the importance of music, and I know between these novels, you pick up any of them, and you see the names Sonic Youth, Jesus Mary Chain, Hüsker Dü, Guided by Voices, Ride, My Bloody Valentine. These milestones of shoegaze, early indie, and you see the importance of music in some of these other books, too. I know you kind of waiver sometimes between focusing on this vein of music and other times it focuses on these characters that are these teen pop idols, the sort of glossy character. But there’s a similarity between these glossy teen pop characters and then in other books when it’s kind of on this grungy character. There’s still this sort of… I don’t know its almost as if these characters are acting as a puppet or kind of enslaved to this thing. I know that there’s a graphic novel you had done with Keith Mayerson from back in the ’90s, which was re-issued not to long ago. Can you talk a little bit about that novel?
Yeah, Keith was a really good friend of mine. He had just graduated from Irvine. Most of my friends are visual artists and he was in the visual artists scene in L.A., which was sort of my scene. I just loved what he did and we were both… I was working on that when I was working on Guide. At that point I had this very great fascination with Alex James, the bass player of Blur, for all kinds of reasons. He gets things done to him in Guide, he’s like a character in Guide, although under a pseudonym. And also we were going to see bands all the time together and this and that, and we both were interested in different people from River Phoenix to whoever. We just decided to try it. It’s a pretty simple story, so we just… I wrote a first chapter and he did a graphic novel. He did a version of it and we got someone to publish it and then we finished it. Essentially, I just basically gave it to him as a script and he could do whatever he wanted with it, and I would just see what he had done. We didn’t sit down and work together on it; it was entirely his doing.
Well I know most recently you’ve been involved in theater performance collaborations with Gisele Vienne. And most notably last spring, in 2012, the two of you took part in the Whitney Biennial. When I visited, I hadn’t done too much reading about the Biennial before I saw it, but I was aware that the show had a different or intense focus on live performance, and part of me was hoping in a way or waiting to see a performance by the two of you. It was quite surprising to see this animatronic sculpture installation that the two of you had done. But these robotic, animatronic figures appear quite frequently in the work that you two do. How did the collaboration between you two start?
Well… She wrote to me, I was in Los Angeles and I was going to Lyon in France. I was still living in Los Angeles then, and I was going to Lyon to do a lecture. She liked my novels because my work is pretty well known in France, and she just wrote to me and said, “I do this, I’m a theater person and I do this, this and this and if you’re coming to Lyon, would you consider spending three extra days, just to see if we could do something together, do a piece together?” And I didn’t know her work at all, she was actually pretty young and just starting out then. But I liked what she sent me and I was a big fan of Peter Rehberg, Peter who did the music for her, so that was a lure for me. And I had done performance theater collaborations in the ’80s with Ishmael Houston-Jones. In fact we have a piece that’s touring right now that’s been revived that we did in like the early ’80s. Anyway, so I went to Lyon, I did my lecture and then we just spent three days together and kind of amazingly made this entire piece basically in three days. It ended up being our first piece called I Apologize, and it was really, really interesting to work with her and with Peter and the rest of them. And people liked it, and it got booked in the Avignon festival based on the sketch, which was like a big deal. So just between all of that we decided we should just keep working together. We’ve been working together ever since, we’re working on our seventh or eighth piece right now. But, yeah, she almost always works with dolls, not always but quite often with these mannequins. She never studied theater, she studied puppetry. That was her PH.D, it was in puppetry. So she has a great interest in that kind of representation and working a lot with that sort of thing. So a lot of the pieces have mannequins in them, representing people or representing different things. Increasingly, they become robotic. This piece Kindertotenlieder, which we made with Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))), that had actual robots in it. They’ve become more sophisticated, and Last Spring: Prequel, the piece in the Biennial, is the precursor to this very large piece we’re working on which is a walk-through maze, which is not going to have any performance in it, it’s going to have like eighteen robots in it. Basically kind of a haunted house, maze thing. You walk through it and the robots will come to you. But the best thing of Prequel was it’s kind of like a carnival barker. That was the idea of it, to sort of set up to call people into this maze we’re going to make. That’s what the whole thing is about. But the people at the Biennial saw it and really liked it so, it was cool.
There’s definitely the hint of the maze with sort of all those frantic drawings on the wall.
Yeah. Well the whole thing is like the kids saying, “Come rescue me and the evil puppets saying, “You will die,” or whatever. So yeah it’s kind of like an ad… It’s like a trailer for the… [laughs]
For the larger… happening. No, that’s great. There’s not too much video documentation of these works online, but from what I’ve been able to see, especially some extended footage from Kindertotenlieder, it seems like the use of these dolls and sort of empty bodies, at least to me, seem like an appropriate fit to some of your writing. There’s this exploration of the body as this hollowed-out thing. In Kindertotenlieder and even some of the live bodies or actors that are there, the way that they’re moving there’s such a slowness to it and grace yet it’s still trapped within these other completely frozen bodies. I wanted to talk to you specifically about that piece. It’s set up as a stage, correct?
Yes. It’s a stage piece and, yes, it is set up on stage and there’s snow. It snows for forty minutes on stage during that one. And then KTL, which is the band—Stephen O’ Malley and Peter Rehberg. Actually they were formed for the piece and now they’ve put a lot of records out on their own, but they play live on stage. Basically the set up is a concert. A boy has died and this is a memorial concert and it’s in the middle of the Austrian woods. It’s like a black metal concert with people, mostly kind of fucked up, depressed, or whatever… People sitting in the audience watching this band. And it goes until the end of this concert.
That’s great. So besides some of your theater works coming up, what else do you have going on? I know you have The Weaklings, which is your blog.
Right, right. Well it’s called DC’s, but yeah. That’s a massive project that is hugely time consuming, which I have fallen into over the years. So that ‘s actually a lot of work [laughs]. But I like doing it, it’s a very interesting project and it’s very popular. It’s a community thing, in addition to what it is to look at it, it also has this community of mostly younger artists and writers. It’s about their work and supporting their work, so it’s turned out for me this valuable kind of resource for people. So yeah there’s that and I’m working on a new novel and theater pieces and… Gosh I don’t know, there’s other stuff I can’t remember. I’m kind of a workaholic so I’m always doing something.
You also have Little House on the Bowery, which is a publishing house.
That has to be another great way to kind of keep interacting with newer work coming out.
Yeah, yeah… It’s great to be able to support young writers that way. It’s been on hiatus for about a year now but I’m just about to get back to it. Now that Altlet has happened and that’s such an incredible thing, it’s more difficult for me now because there’s so many of these amazing young presses that are putting all these people out. So it’s become a little more difficult for me to find stuff that I really, really want to put out because there are so many venues just like Little House on the Bowery now. But I’m very into supporting younger artists and writers, that’s always been a very important thing to me.
Well I think that’s all I have for you.
At least for now…
Thanks again for speaking with us.