in Conversation with Drew Zeiba
Travis Jeppesen is bad. The United States–born, Shanghai and Berlin-based writer, artist, and critic has been rebelling against the staid, familiar form of “critical” writing and churnalism overtaking many art publications, so often press releases by another name, by carving out a form of art writing that rises to the occasion of art itself. In his most recent book, Bad Writing (Sternberg Press, 2019), Jeppesen investigates work that is capital-B Bad, an epithet he uses as a descriptor for art that disrupts our aesthetic and moral sensibilities and thus is able to claim its title, rightfully, as art. Over the course of a month this spring, we exchanged emails discussing this goodness and badness; debating the limits and murky boundaries of art and literature; of language and image; of the individual and collective.
Above all, Jeppesen, and Bad Writing, misbehave. His criticism enlivens images and indulges the sensual and the sick. It pushes art and language to their breaking points and asks them to flex some more, all to make us reconsider how and why we should write about art at all.
Drew Zeiba: The essays in Bad Writing, if that’s even the appropriate word, were written over a relatively long period. How did this line of thinking, about b/Badness and the limits and possibilities of art writing, begin for you? And when did you realize you were writing a book?
Travis Jeppesen: Most of the pieces were written over a five-year period, from roughly 2011 to 2016. Some of them were the direct result of specific commissions, but a big bulk of it went into my PhD dissertation (called a “thesis” in the UK), which I undertook at the Royal College of Art in London and finished in 2016. Towards the end of that period, I realized that I would eventually turn it into a book—essentially much of the criticism and ficto-criticism I was writing during these years were all interrelated, thematically. The same concerns just kept coming to the forefront, no matter what topic I was addressing. Someone said that artists who write criticism inevitably end up writing about themselves, about their own work through an examination of other subjects. Certainly, Bad Writing can in many ways be read as an elucidation of the aesthetic underlying my novel The Suiciders (Semiotext(e)), even though I don’t talk about The Suiciders specifically in this book. But The Suiciders came out in 2013, and was written over a ten-year period, so I guess you could say that Bad Writing represents an attempt to articulate what have been enduring concerns for me for quite some time.
DZ: You open the book by talking about the current state of art criticism, which I think we can both agree is pretty depressing for a variety of reasons. Can criticism be useful, or beyond useful, —a contribution to writing in a broader sense, to literature?
TJ: I think that criticism can be useful and has a place. As I write in the book, this is more or less my own modest effort at practicing criticism as a literary art form, trying to put criticism on the same level as the poem or the novel. Or painting or sculpture, for that matter. Criticism need not be a strictly utilitarian or, even worse, consumerist venture. I think it’s very much the writer’s responsibility to put forward a model of language usage that goes beyond being merely a vehicle for transmitting information. Criticism can come loaded with both strong ideas and an imaginative or poetic deployment of language. Criticism should be constantly re-inventing itself.
DZ: What historical precedents are there for critical writing that is itself literature or art, that advances art rather than just decorates it—or sells it? In Bad Writing, you spend time with Gertrude Stein, treating her as one of the central exponents of Bad writing—and of writing on art as art. Still, the current uncritical state of criticism has not always been its state, and despite all of today’s bad, or let’s say uninspired, criticism, there must still be some that’s Bad, as you understand it.
TJ: This was the project of art criticism from its origins. Certainly the work of James Elkins, one of the few art historians I know of who’s researched the history of Western art criticism, reveals this. In the late 18th century, when art criticism as a modern form that we know it as today was first coming into existence in England and France, literary responses to art might take the form of monologues, often written in the voices of imaginary or historical personages (pre-figuring ficto-criticism and object-oriented writing), satirical songs, elaborate dramas, or Voltairean critique. This developed into the Salon criticism of the 19th century in France, a lot of which was written by poets and novelists. Even though the role of the art critic eventually grew to become more professionalized and hence specialized, the poet-art critic role endured well into the 20th century, from the activities of Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein in France all the way up through the New York School poets like John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara and the current great proponent of that tradition, Eileen Myles.
DZ: That said, to what degree can the current uncritical and unliterary nature of so much art writing be chocked up to the economic conditions of the art world, and of media more generally, where more work, to feed the high-speed glut demanded by the internet, is demanded for less pay from writer-workers in increasingly precarious positions?
TJ: Well, this is certainly a major issue. The art world isn’t really the meritocracy it likes to imagine itself to be—usually it is those who are best at networking and making friends with the powerful who advance to the forefront, and those people aren’t always the brightest, the most talented, or the most original. And precisely because there is so much money in the art world, those who don’t have it are afraid to offend those who do. And, perversely, those who do have it are incentivized to downplay or conceal it; they’re more often than not drawn to the art world because of whatever aura of exclusivity they’ve projected on to it and feel desperate to belong to it, to say all the right things and show up at all the right events so that they won’t get kicked out of the club. Just bring up the topic of money at any art world dinner you get invited to, watch the displays of discomfort all around you. As I say in the book, the art world is more or less run on fear. Though that is also an obvious result of a wider malaise of the Zeitgeist, call it late capitalism or neoliberalism or whatever.
DZ: You, among other recent writers on the historiography of art history as a discipline, a textual discipline, have taken Clement Greenberg, one of Modernism’s most definitive, or at least well-known, critical voices, to task. In the case of Bad Writing, one of your sharpest critiques is of his inability “to throw Descartes in the trash were he belongs.” What is the use of a Bad writer over a writer who is very good in a traditional sense, as we might argue Greenberg was? And, in the face of that, what makes Bad Writing Bad writing?
TJ: I don’t find the Greenbergian project of formalism all that objectionable, in and of itself. Certainly the underlying ambition, trying to understand artworks in purely aesthetic terms, was useful and influential for me at a certain point. I wish more critics and curators today frankly had more of an aesthetic point of view. Instead, so much of the work that is deemed important does so because it checks all the politically correct boxes or fits some consensual agenda that has nothing to do with any perceived or alleged artistic or aesthetic value. Where Greenberg went wrong is when he went off on this ego trip, considering himself to be the chief arbiter of taste. He was also operating during a period where that kind of macho posturing in the art and literary worlds was taken a lot more seriously than it would be today.
Some of the badness that I put forward here, as a literary or critical trope, is more implicit than explicit; that is, I also play with it in my writing, rather than just dealing with the subject of intentionality—intentional badness—in others’ work. For example, in some of the essays, I use summarization. In school, we’re taught that merely summarizing a literary work or a film is bad criticism. Instead, you’re meant to extrapolate themes and ideas in putting forth a unique assessment, throwing in a quotation here and there from the work to support your argument. (A parallel project to the texts I developed in Bad Writing was the evolution of object-oriented writing, which is essentially a re-creative art form, where you’re re-creating, in your own language, the essence of another work of art. This is quite similar to what you do when you summarize, but not exactly the same.) Through the “bad” process of summarization, I felt I was able to arrive at certain critical assessments from within, rather than coming at it from without, as more formalist approaches attempt to do.
DZ: In Bad Writing you advance a notion of what you call object-oriented writing. You also have your own subject-object neither/nor un-formation, the sobject. It’s hard to think of the phrase “object oriented” today without thinking of Object Oriented Ontology, a loose branch of philosophy in recent vogue. How do these lines of philosophical inquiry fit into your writing? What can being object oriented offer the writer?
TJ: I deeply admire the work of Graham Harman, but I must admit I came to it rather late, after I had already developed the idea of object-oriented writing. Encountering Harman’s writing, and realizing that he was pursuing a parallel trajectory in the field of philosophy, opened up so many new pathways for my own thinking about what I was doing. I’m crudely paraphrasing here, but Harman even says, somewhere in his writings, that maybe the next step for metaphysics is to evolve towards the field of aesthetics or art-making.
Object-oriented writing was very much conceived as a sort of metaphysical approach to art writing, and grew out of my frustration with what art criticism has conventionally become. So the idea is to infest inanimate (art) objects with agency, through the vehicle of writing. While at the same time acknowledging the inherent futility, the impossibilities, of such a task. Of, in a sense, reveling and rejoicing in those impossibilities, in that failure.
DZ: While Bad Writing has more plainly experimental works, like the later pieces of ficto-criticism, some of the essays that at least superficially “traditional” often launch into rather unusual, unpredictable elements alongside more expected descriptive, historical, and analytical methodologies. I think of in particular the essay "The Anatomy of Melancholy," which at first seems, if rather poetic, a straightforward analysis of the paintings of Christian Schoeler, but where suddenly we realize that you, or your words, have come to inhabit the image. The frame you are working around is “imploded” not by its irruption but in a way, by your entering it or revising its frame-ness. Your subject (that is, the object of your interest) and your own subjectivity are melded into the para-subjectivity of that thing you’re gazing at, writing on. What boundaries and boundarylessness are you invested in? And how does the particular art you’re looking at change how you write, change the way language can work with and through it?
TJ: I’m glad you asked that, because I think what art I’m looking at definitely has an influence on the way I write about it. I guess it comes down to temperament—there’s work that I’m able to “enter into” more readily than others. “The Anatomy of Melancholy” is a piece about Christian Schoeler’s work, and there’s certainly a clear sensuality to those paintings on the surface, but that sensuality is composed of a fluidity, not just in the brushstrokes, but by Schoeler’s overall approach to painting: both as a physical act and in the philosophy behind it. Certainly one sees that unity that I try elsewhere to describe as the body-mind machine, the vehicle, at play here, which makes it easy for me to “illustrate” that through the writing, not by doing the conventional thing and describing it from a detached scientific “outside” view, but by entering into the thing, by trying to become fluid like the paint; and also showing the similarities between writing and painting.
So to answer your question, I would say I’m ultimately invested in a sort of weaponized writing, that is: the deployment of writing as a means for dissolving boundaries, rather than respecting them.
DZ: Many of the artists you feature are not only prolific, but feel invested in repetition, almost as compulsion, as fixation. Repetition, and listing, and accumulation, also become, at times, another set of Bad writerly habits you deploy.
TJ: I’ve always been a lover of repetition, down to the micro- and meta-levels; I love consonance and assonance, etc. Maybe because I was trained as a musician from the age of six, part of my perceiving or understanding has been molded by repetition, which is of course a key element of music.
DZ: But, for all this strangeness, the book possesses a certain clarity. Or at least in the beginning portion, where the pieces take the form of more traditional art writing, before entering the frame, moving along with the art, and then departing non-fiction “truth” for ficto-criticism, which itself starts narratively and arguably becomes increasingly obscure, somehow both more fluid and fragmentary in its prose. Why this descent?
TJ: It can certainly be viewed as a descent, if you’d like. But I tend to view it as more of an ascent—where the language “rises” beyond the mere need to make sense, in a conventional way, reaching this higher plateau, where it is gradually released from the stringency of this requirement, finally graduating into “the space of no-writing.” It’s a bit like dying, if you’re wont to view dying as a beautiful thing rather than a horrible, disgusting, tragic experience.
DZ: While the text may be difficult, in the more conceptual sense, it is a quite readable book in a physical sense: standard size sans-serif font, everything organized how one expects a book to be organized. However, throughout there are the scribbly, stylized titles and the semi-asemic strokes that are hard to read, or resist reading, at least in a traditional sense. You also make similar marks that you post on Instagram. I’d love to hear more about this drawing-writing, about reading and/as seeing.
TJ: I started doing this kind of “bad writing,” using calligraphic pens and markers, but also traditional Chinese ink and paper, many years ago. It sort of evolved organically out of my daily writing practice. I’ve always been a notebook keeper, I’ve always had to write out my first drafts by hand. Some of the pages of my notebooks would be filled with these illegible scribbles, asemic writing is what some artist/writers have taken to calling it. Once I showed a close friend some of these pages from a notebook, and she suggested that I try doing this on a bigger, more painterly scale. I followed her suggestion, and so that’s one pathway my work has taken. I’ve had a few solo exhibitions of this work, and while some may argue that it is technically drawing or painting, to me all of it belongs to the category of “writing”; it’s really an extension, of sorts, of my writing practice.
We don’t really have this calligraphic tradition in the West. For this reason, I feel like a lot of people just don’t get what I’m doing at all. I’ve always loved the preciousness of writing by hand, and when I first began traveling to China and Taiwan in 2011, I fell in love with Chinese calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting—this great tradition that was never burdened with this Western division between “word” and “image.” In a sense, I’ve been looking for ways to re-create that scriptoral divisionlessness in my own language or tradition. So this is why I called my first big exhibition of this work (and the limited-edition monograph that accompanied it) “New Writing”: the title can have multiple meanings.
DZ: With literary writing, Bad writing, illegible writing, image-writing, all these multifarious ways of making and crafting from and beyond language, what does the work of the writer become? Or, to put it more simply, remedially, even: what is writing?
TJ: I would define writing as play of the most serious sort. I’ve come to view language as just another material—the same way painters deploy oil paint or sculptors use clay. I’m interested in these moments, where you get to a point where one can detach a word from its meaning—and then what are you left with? Pure sound. Building blocks of those sounds, which look like sentences, but are markedly a-signifying… Though are they? For isn’t this just another way of creating meaning, of making new meanings arise from these detached signifiers?
Photo of Travis Jeppesen by Jason Harrell.
Drew Zeiba is a writer and editor living in New York. Their essays, poetry, criticism, and journalism have appeared in publications like PIN–UP, Artforum, Vulture, Foglifter, and Office, among others, and artwork they’ve collaborated on has been exhibited and screened internationally.