Wave Composition is delighted to publish the following extended interview with Lynne DeSilva-Johnson: poet, artist, thinker, editor, publisher, lifehacker, and founder of The Operating System. The OS is a truly remarkable experiment in multi-scale collective cultural production, having to date published several dozen chapbooks and full-length collections (poetry, memoir/nonfiction, drama, and performance documentation) and a vast, constantly expanding archive of digital content, along with partnering with a wide range of other publishers, sites, events, and initiatives. In the maximalist exchange that follows, DeSilva-Johnson provides an abundantly hyperlinked guided tour of the OS cosmos, independent publishing, print and digital poetics, cultural anthropology, horizontal human evolution, bioprecarity, and much, much, much more.
The Operating System reads rolling submissions of full length manuscripts and is reading submissions for its 2017 chapbook series, the theme for which is Eco/poetics. There are many ways, online and off, to collaborate with and support this growing organization.
Wave Composition: The Operating System—which you describe as an “ongoing experiment in resilient creative practice”—is a remarkable project for many reasons. It is an independent publisher, a magazine, a website, a hub, a haven, an instruction manual, an exercise in community-building, a form of radical entrepreneurship, and the list goes on and on. Its amorphousness and commitment to continual evolution across multiple frontiers is deeply instructive. I have a strong sense that what drives The OS is a basic impatience with the inefficiency of so much cultural production and of our (in)abilities, as creators, activists, and thinkers, to produce work and share it with each other. The OS tears down (fire)walls wherever it sees them. One of the most notable features of The OS is its insistence that “entrepreneurship” and “technology” are not dirty words opposed to pure art-making and that the perpetuation of this opposition only keeps artists down. I’d like to begin by hearing your thoughts about what it’s meant over the past few years that you’ve been running The OS to embrace a radically détourned notion of entrepreneurship as the basis of your work on all fronts.
Lynne DeSilva-Johnson: I’m laughing as I’m reading this, Stephen, because I’ve never really conceived of “impatience” as a major motivation but of course it is. Perhaps I would frame it as “dissatisfaction,” since impatience doesn’t feel as positive, but I’m willing to own this dissatisfaction/frustration 100%! What I will say is this: I think that there’s a lot of checks and balances, both publicly/structurally and internally, that keep us from evolving—as individuals, in relationships, as organizations, and then absolutely on a larger scale, pretty much in every social or cultural institution and system, and ergo as a species. People tend to be pretty awestruck when I tell them how much I’m doing—today, this week, this month, this year—but I’m not saying this to brag, quite the opposite. I’m saying this because it’s the result of me taking myself to task on my own theories. I think we have created cripplingly inefficient systems, and most of us are crippled by a huge range of factors—FOMO, fatigue, fear, to name a few.
It’s no exaggeration to say that our planet and as a result our species is in crisis. We’ve got a huge amount of work to do to make the necessary shifts before we’re literally wiped out by our self-imposed, largely imaginary limits, so I’m super into naked emperor mode, which is to say, calling a spade a spade, recognizing the high level of farce, simulacra, the smoke and mirrors playing out on the world stage, while focusing on tasks at hand. I used to talk to my college students about gamifying these strategies—recognizing “enemies” keeping you from, I don’t know, writing today (aka “saving the princess”), developing micro and macro strategies and skills (weapons!), whether that means staying out of energy draining conversations (hiyah! take that!) recognizing what language you’re using that’s limiting you (“not a morning person”) and/or understanding and beginning to address the structural factors/stressors in your environment. I’m always thinking about all of that, and wanting people to work on that stuff now, in the service of the whole.
You can’t eat like shit and not sleep and have fifteen circuitous, stressful conversations on Facebook a day and drink five nights a week and have no mindfulness practice and get no exercise and wonder why you’re not getting anything done, but we often don’t want to talk about the other stuff because we’re stuck in these normative patterns of “treating” ourselves by poisoning our bodies, we fear isolation, etc, etc. So this dissatisfaction is part of a much, much larger dissatisfaction! But what I’m trying to model—and I’ll talk more about this later—is how work on yourself, setting intentions and being both visionary and pragmatic (without being precious or crippling yourself) can result in a hugely different modality of experience for almost any person out there. You can literally perceive your time differently, you can do more in every day and feel less stressed, like you have more time and are less fatigued than before.
But you know this isn’t just piled on top, it’s a deep dive and a lot of self-work first and alongside, and it’s not really an optional add on. My desire for the community is that we experience deep and lasting change, and this has to come from inside. Writing poetry, making art, writing music helps us stay open to this, creative people are open to this, already asking these questions about human experience, so I generally feel there’s a lot of possibility for great progress with most practitioners. Sometimes Sparrow (whose book, How to Survive the Coming Collapse of Civilization and Other Helpful Hints, is just about to be released by The OS) and I half-joke about starting a religion, because then I could get all sorts of tax write-offs, and I’m half-considering this as a viable economic strategy. In the meantime, you may not know this, I’ve also hosted a variety of classes at my house—open houses around various spiritual practices, meditation, eastern philosophy, dharma, etc, with guests, and if you’re on my social media you’ll see my constant experimentation with whole-food-plant-based diet, because as someone who suffers from chronic illness in order to keep my endocrine system in check enough to do ANYTHING but sleep all day I’ve realized I can’t eat wheat, dairy, soy, or consume caffeine. I’ve basically quit drinking, too. And these are changes that would be radical for anyone. Critically, though, I don’t understand this as being separate from my radical entrepreneurship/creative practice but absolutely at its core and enabling it.
I love the idea of “a radically détourned notion of entrepreneurship” and will steal the phrase with your permission! In fact my writing and thinking as an academic and social practice artist has always been deeply influenced by the Situationists and Debord, and my activism has often been performed via culture-jamming/hacking networks and so it’s no surprise that détournement has trickled down into everything I do.
Worth putting in your pocket for later are these two definitional quotations of détournement, for those who may be less familiar with the concept:
“[t]he integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu” (Situationist International, 1958) ; “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself” (Douglas Holt, 2010).
But indeed—The OS is as agile, as prismatic as it needs to be to meet the needs of the many complex systems with which it needs to intersect and dialogue. In this way it’s my mirror—or a mirror of any of us who’ve learned that we need to be chameleons to remain adaptable and resilient. Though recently the New Yorker’s editorial choices have made me throw up in my mouth, there’s a pretty valuable article on the work of Norman Garmezy in the under-theorized, little understood psychology of resilience that’s really worth a read. The concepts of resilience, sustainability, agility, (and other terms and theories that are derived from/more commonly found in ecology, biology, evolution, network dynamics, technology, etc) have been far more influential in my thinking about the formation of The OS than have, let’s say, studies on poetics, per se—but then again while art and language are two of my primary creative forms of practice, my intellectual and academic background runs the gamut from anthropology to urban design and futurism, so while at the front this may seem like it’s “about” poetry or art or books it’s actually much more me turning my own theorizing about social and cultural evolution of humans into practice vis-a-vis adapting our cultural models for this time and moving into future.
(It’s worth noting maybe here that my interest in evolution, and particularly of what I believe is the human potential for horizontal, lifetime auto-evolution is an ongoing research area for me, the sort of meta-project of all my projects, and a big-book project. You can read a little bit about it on Emergent By Design, futurist Venessa Miemis’s blog, from an announcement I made about the work back in 2012. I found some great thought-and-research partners through the project, including incredible theoretical neurobiologist Mark Changizi, who actually contributed early on to the “Field Notes” series I run on The OS.)
From the outset, my instinct in discovering the methods of anthropological inquiry (in, let’s say, 1998) was that we needed these dialogues, these modes of conversation and evaluation in every sector—that we needed to be able to use these tools interpersonally, professionally, widely. I wrote an undergraduate thesis on using anthropological research methodologies to influence the contemporary practice of architecture, called “Measure Twice,” which is every much as relevant as it was when I completed the 150-page tome in 2001, if I may be so ungracefully, er, humble.
It’s pretty difficult to differentiate what this notion has meant for The OS from what it means for me because (somewhat secretly, I guess not anymore) The OS could be seen as a big, public, utopian, collaborative art project with my questions and hypotheses about human systems, creativity, labor, and economics at its center. If this suggests that its goals are selfish, I’d both agree and disagree—yes, I wanted (and want) to address these issues in my own life, and want to identify and fertilize spaces of possibility for myself as well as others through this ongoing experiment. However, everything is transparent, and documented, and as an under-resourced non-binary chronically ill individual who struggles with educational debt, a crushing relationship with the United States’ biopolitical regime, an inadequate labor market, and the absurd housing market in New York City, I represent a pretty interesting intersection of the concerns, difficulties, and structural impediments facing creative production today. The anthropologist in me, also, has been documenting conversations and found media on these issues, not only in our contemporary environment but also historically (and cross-culturally), and I constantly work against my own privilege, geographic blinders, and other biases to come at this experiment as well-informed as possible.
My assertion via The OS’s efforts and projects becomes then, essentially, open source performance documentation of my determination to prove incorrect what structural, standard logic might demonstrate: that I (or someone like me) lacks the resources, time, or energy to maintain a creative practice, and that indeed it is irresponsible to do so. It becomes modeling in so far as rather than seeing any of my experiments as “intellectual property” I understand these as being of far greater value if they are shared.
I’d started the Open Sourcing of curriculum, exercises, and conversations on the website when I was still working with Ben Wiessner, Doug Wright, and the community we began to form as the magazine we called “Exit Strata”—the project veered into The OS when I continually butted heads with Doug, who got frustrated when I kept insisting that we ask questions about community and common good. WHY would we start another magazine, WHY would we start another reading series, WHAT does this offer that others don’t offer, HOW are we creating unnecessary competition or redundancy, HOW are we changing the conversation, etc etc. I wasn’t into doing something that was already being done, just with our names on it, because I felt (and still feel) like this common strategy is all too often the knee-jerk reaction to frustration of another sort—ie, let’s be blunt, creating a vanity pub or series so that you and your friends can get published/read/etc when you’re lesser known and having trouble breaking into publications. Which is a real frustration and something I share! But I’m very “let’s evaluate the field,” “let’s reach out to/study existing models,” and very reticent to publish myself, or my friends, without there being a significant balance of reaching out to / soliciting from and opening submissions to as wide a field as possible. And I’m open to self-publishing, but putting my own work in a magazine (sort of like including your own work in a curated show) is sort of a no-no for me. In certain anthologies or shows, though, there’d be exceptions of course. But I digress.
The point is, The OS began in earnest during my time creating Exit Strata, and it was built out of dissatisfaction with the magazine model, because when I was invited in I refused to do it unless the team would agree to let me do my thing. I had by far the most experience with running and designing magazines and books, so the others sort of just let me do my thing, and soon I was doing like 90% of the work, because to be honest our goals were different—I wanted to change the world and do this radical multi-tier thing, but the original plan was more a magazine to put their stuff, and other cool stuff they knew, in. Which is fine, but I was totally committed to creating this big thing—I was trying to put up new content every day, and do aggregated content (still a plan), and create this big hub. Now don’t get me wrong—a lot of amazing things happened under the Exit Strata moniker, we did these incredible salons, and made a few beautiful collected volumes. And it worked up to a point. It’s worth noting that Ben and I started The OS together, in fact – he and I are very close friends—but really his path was to go off and kick ass in the film world, which he continues to do with Ornana. That said, it was what I needed to start reaching out to the community in an organized way with a mission behind me.
At the beginning, I’d started trying to Open Source stuff, to gather materials, to create these massive databases, to resuscitate the dead New York City poetry calendar, to get people in various creative disciplines to read and get exposed to the peer to peer and open source theory stuff I was reading, that my friends in other communities were having so much success with. I was steeped in Fast Company, Inc, Yes! Magazine, the projects of BALLE, the P2P network, all these futurist and sacred economics people I know, and feeling totally empowered. Also I was hell-bent on opening this writers coop that I’d called “Heroes and Hobos” (due to the evergreen internet the WordPress site I started lives on). I’d written out all the business modeling and done the classes at the Brooklyn Public Library for the “powerUp” competition. I was looking at spaces.
During that last year of Exit Strata I self-published two chapbooks under “The Trouble With Bartleby” moniker (the name of my blog/sort of the pupa stage of The OS, from 2003 until recently), and I went to the chapbook festival and Occupy and a bunch of readings with the Heroes and Hobos stuff like LET’S DO THIS THING and all these people in the poetry community (most of whom I only knew sort of tangentially at this point, because I’d basically been in art and academia for a long time) were kind of “who the fuck are you?” —I mean, looking back on it I can see that maybe I can enter a room like somewhere between the Kool-Aid man and the Tasmanian Devil, and all these sort of long-suffering poets and adjuncts and publishers are just exhausted and they don’t know me and so, mostly, they’d sort of politely decline. Mostly. Some got REALLY excited, and those are the people that came to the next stage of the game with me. For instance, this is when I really started to talking to Matt Nelson and Jacob Perkins, (a few years before they founded Mellow Pages) and they’d come to all my weird meetings and roundtables and stuff, where we’d talk in great detail about strategy. And some got sort of nervously excited, and kept in touch, and maybe did something for the website. I got a lot of “this sounds amazing! but I have NO time—you found it, and I’ll join when you do for sure.”
But that was a super important learning experience about scale, and about approachability, not only in terms of entering a room, either actually or metaphorically (the Facebook group “room” can be a pretty similar space), but also quite literally in terms of familiarity and how much the comfort of the familiar affects the choices we make in communities in our current exhausted, bioprecarious environment.
I learned a big lesson about modeling, which is something that entrepreneurs often talk about: I realized that it would be really helpful to have a model of something I could do within my means that could serve as an example of the type of things that we could make, the type of things that could be possible in new ways, before really starting to move into the big ideas, because developing awareness of these models – and awareness of my approach (and of me, the fact of my existence, to these people that didn’t know me from Adam)—would start to build trust. And the model I decided to start with was the book, because I’d just made my own, and I was like fuck this, I can do this in a way no one is doing.
Right before Exit Strata became The OS (but I was already basically working on my own), I reached out to a bunch of people that I knew through various circles (not particularly close friends of mine, though we became close as a result), and asked them if they were interested in doing a “design charette” of their work to develop chapbooks, which we did. And, in keeping with my desire to create relationships with local artists, we all worked with print maker Kevin William Reed to commission and collaborate on covers. And thus the first chapbook series was born. And our last issue of the magazine-formerly-known-as-exit-strata came out as The Operating System right after that, and the rest is history: we’ve done a chapbook series of 4 books, working with artists, every year since then, and once that model was mature many many folks asked if I could do full length books or other books, people started referring me to people or people to me, and I began doing full lengths, approached still, very much, as a teaching moment—a transparent transaction in which the poet, artist, any practitioner involved has total access to an understanding of the business of that book and its making, printing, distribution.
I’m pretty sure I’ve answered maybe a bit of your question, and maybe ten other questions. That’s what happens when we don’t do this facing each other. The part of my family I grew up with is Italian, from Brooklyn, and the way conversations go is that no one ever stops talking. It’s like a fugue. If someone wants to respond, or talk, they’ll start talking over you, and you’ll sort of fade out—so see, here, your question below isn’t cutting me off in audio, and I’m just blabbering on.
Linguistically and ethnographically I find this fascinating but I do recognize that I’ve veered off track….soooooo… yes. Right—also important to add is that the idea that art and technology are different or distinct is sort of endearingly funny to me. I had an anthropology professor in an intro to four-fields class, so he was actually an archeologist, remind us that nets are technology, that arrowheads are technology. Do you realize that “technology” is defined as “the science of the application of knowledge to practical purposes”? So, basically, anything we as people have developed to achieve an end is technology—everything we’re already using to make art is technology, it’s just become habitual. Books are technology, art supplies are technology. If you’re anti technology you’d better go all the way back to oral history and painting with mud—I mean you might even say the mud is disallowed, because you’ve already figured out how to use a material for something it’s not “naturally” doing on its own. Once mud becomes paint/communication, it’s already “technology.”
I’d probably start any conversation about creativity and technology with that sweet little distinction. It’s pretty easy to get a good laugh with that, and that’s always a great entry to possibility. People are pretty ready to listen to why technology is ok, and most people are pretty open to learning. They’re usually just exhausted and fear not catching up and don’t want to HAVE to change and add more tasks to their life, but that’s not a technology fear, it’s back to the structural, biopolitics stuff, so if you overwhelm people they shut down. But even older people— creative folks, provided their spirits aren’t sufficiently crushed—are ultimately curious, and get really into technology as yet another tool, if you sit and help them become facile. And once you get there, it’s incredibly empowering, and the next step feels less daunting. So this is effective, but it’s nearly impossible to address systemic change one person at a time. Classes that work in this way are great, though, and I’ve used this approach in lectures and workshops, with notable success.
The entrepreneurship sell is harder, for so many reasons, not the least of which is the fraught nature of our relationship to money just in general. I organized an exhibit and roundtable/panel around this issue at LaunchpadBK, a great (sadly now closed) community gallery/space in Prospect Heights a few years back, which really opened up some incredible conversation between all different sorts of folks. At the time I was writing a lot around the idea of the “Accidental Entrepreneur,” a phrase I came up with, because I found this a very accurate description of basically anyone and everyone in the creative fields, and I found that people reluctant to think about money or to think about themselves as intentionally owning the idea of themselves as an Entrepreneur were quite willing to accept that they were one, anyway, if quite by accident, by dint of the skills it had turned out they really needed in order to function as a creative person at all.
That conversation continues—personally, with organizations and colleagues, through every book, through the continued desire to work with other creative people to investigate, develop, co-create, and establish brick and mortar spaces that work in tandem with virtual networks (something very much within our reach). If you check out the original in the descriptiontext for the exhibit/event, you’ll recognize the nascent beginnings of the language that makes up our WHY PRINT/DOCUMENT mission on the website.
Have I even remotely answered your question? Seriously, how much time do we have? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve got some thoughts on the subject….
WC: The OS operates on many fronts as a growing experiment with different forms and scales of collective creation and expression. Maybe you could speak a bit more about the experience of being in the “command center” of such a sublimely multi-dimensional project, or series of projects? (Perhaps I’m completely missing the point, though, by imagining you in central command of such a resolutely decentralized project?)
LDJ: Sure, yes, and I bet I can be more succinct here, too: oh man, the silo thing is just the worst. I’d never want to work on a project that wasn’t multidimensional, I just think we lose too much. I’m super committed to helping bridge disciplines whenever and however I can. It’s exhilarating to work with dancers and composers and neuroscientists and engineers. Why would you not want to do that? When we create barriers we close down access to what I believe is the ultimate purpose of any art practice, if not cognitively-individually, as a species for sure: deepened understanding of the self, of human experience – the possibility to evolve ourselves horizontally through continuous sensory and perceptual disruption, caused by exposure to re/presentation via the senses and perceptions of others. Cross-pollination is so essential to a richer understanding of even our own discipline, and so is cross-pollination within disciplines: intersectionally, in translation, in so many ways.
Pretty frequently, I’ll bring up Black Mountain or the Bauhaus or even the rich, dense punk video/art/music/poetry scene of the East Village in the 1970s and 80s, or Vienna in the 1890s as models. It’s not to reinforce our tendency to deify certain cultural experiences or histories, but because I think there’s so much to be learned from those times, insofar as what they can teach us about what happens when our disciplinary boundaries are fluid or even dissolved.
Again, The OS as mirror of self. I’ve learned to take on labels in ways that serve me functionally in social and professional ways but I take care on a deeper level to remind myself that none of these are actually definitional. I’m a relentlessly curious person who explores, communicates and documents, both in short term and long term mediums. There is no medium that is not interesting to me, and no subject that bores me. I believe all artists share this at our core (yes yes, like all children, though I know that trope is overdone) but like most people we’ve been trained away from a broad-ranging curiosity as being too risky, damaging, “dilletante-ish”.
Am I in the command center? I guess one could see it that way. But I feel like I’m more of a “hollow bone”—this is a metaphor from spiritual practice, that I learned from my teacher Eileen O’Hare—I sort of see myself as this conduit for universal energy, connecting the dots, strengthening connections and reinforcing weak links, reducing redundancies, helping clear dust off cloaked potential. I see myself as an architect, of sorts, but one who’s trying to encourage building onto these baby infrastructures/armatures by others within the community—open sourcing plans as we see with software development. The network as I envision it is non-hierarchical—if you’re interested in similar thinking in other industries you should check out my friend and colleague Jon Husband’s awesome work on wirearchy—so it’s sort of funny to think of there being commands, or a center at all! But I guess it sort of works that way for now, radiating out of my personal efforts, but I’m singing the songs I learned at socialist summer camp over the system radio so that there’s no question that I don’t think of myself as on “top” or “above” in any way, just a facilitator.
WC: Your background in cultural anthropology and graduate degree in Urban Design set your approach to cultural curation and production apart from many other poets, editors, and publishers out there. Your activities are informed by a deep commitment to building networks and to constant revisionism. I was delighted to discover you shared my passion for Buckminster Fuller’s poetry, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea or even on many people’s radars, but which to my mind usefully collapses the tired distinction between “art” and “technology” (or art/science, creativity/technorationalism, etc etc) through sheer exuberant idiosyncrasy. Bucky’s writing seems to make more (affective AND cognitive) sense when lineated like a poem, and not at all in the same way that, say, Bob Perelman’s and Charles Bernstein’s lineated-prose poems do. I wonder if you could say something about how you see The OS as incorporating the “non-poetic” into the “poetic” and vice versa, or see the hybridization of these admittedly tenuous and possibly unuseful categories as a focus of The OS?
LDJ: I’m feeling like maybe I answered this question in the answer above? Though of course I’m willing to wax poetic on Buckminster Fuller. I wish he was on more people’s radar – or more poets’ radar – of course in the other communities I’m in he is maybe at demigod status. I was with a bunch of sort of radical futurist / culture hacker sort of folks in Montreal this summer at his incredible biosphere, where I broke into tears. Happened at Bauhaus a few years ago too. I have all the feels, in these cases, here where people are deeply, deeply, committed to the widescale change for humankind, rather for a particular place or field or discipline or type of people. And that’s my motivation too. Those are my people, and I can really feel their efforts, their investment in that hope in my body when I’m in these places. I’m kind of an empath.
Anyway. Exuberant idiosyncrasy, 100%. I love the idea of exuberance, and like to think I’m exuberantly excited about life, and making things, and about the things that we make and I believe this can be infectious. We’re surrounded by CRAZY amazing invention, both in the arts and elsewhere. I am really into wonder and awe. It’s really useful for your practice. Its easier to pick up from kids—we don’t distrust their motives – but it works, it builds, and once people trust me it really works! There’s this great Louis CK interview where he kind of goes off on this, how everything is amazing and we all just complain all the time. I have a poem I wrote on a plane about how blasé we are about miracles and that’s 100% true. I’d like to change that, tonally, in our experience of the arts, both as practitioners and receivers.
I want to cross-pollinate here, and encourage others to do the same. Sometimes it’s honestly just knowing where to look, and we also don’t really like to feel stupid, as adults. We kind of avoid being beginners, which is sad, because we’re really beginners as a species, it just can’t be avoided, and you’re going to learn your whole life whether you accept it and invite it or not. But I’m trying to come at this in a non-elitist way—that’s how the whole Poetry Month series is framed: hey, here’s this person that gives me joy, that inspires me, and you should know them too, and it’s totally cool if you’ve never heard of them, and you should read this totally non-judgy essay that’s not going to make you feel stupid or talk down to you even if you’re not into poetry at all because this is some great shit that changed me and it can do the same for you. You know?
I didn’t go to an MFA program, and I’m not even 100% familiar with the Bernstein and Perelman reference you’re making here, but my game is helping people not pretend that they do (totally my impulse here, not gonna front)—so that I remind myself that there’s nothing wrong with not knowing! We know what we know, we arrived here by different paths. We’ve got to get to the place where we don’t feel so insecure that we assert ourselves by putting other people down because they don’t have a degree, aren’t familiar with a certain person or subject or book or theory, because they are unknown. But of course this brings us back to the precarity, the fear, and the inner work. There are a lot of reasons we’re insecure, and so many things that reinforce both these feelings and the public performance of assertion of importance via these behaviors and codes.
Nothing long-term or truly valuable is going to be accomplished if I come at this standard solely with anger and not with compassion for the scared inner children of the people who are facing the crumbling of the systems that told them how things worked and that they were important because of X or Z which now are irrelevant. I get it. But I try to focus more on the modeling of the joy and wonder, and sidewinding around the other part of this conversation, even though it’s deeply important to me. That’s some real quicksand, and that’s an example of how I stay focused on goals. I have to believe that publishing this book is more important than the heated conversation over Twitter, 90% of the time.
WC: What are the most persistent challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them? I ask this because so much of what The OS is about is teaching others how to seize the means of cultural production, as it were. It is pedagogy by other means.
LDJ: I think I’ve mentioned a few times here how (my word) “bioprecarity” is at the heart of the struggle of getting people to sign on / feel capable of change and growth, but I really can’t stress it enough, and it’s absolutely a space I know well.
I come from a single-parent family—the third mother in a line of single mothers. My father was adopted, and gone by the time I was two. We never got a cent from him. My mom’s family was blue collar Italian. She gave them money while working two jobs and supporting me. I got my working papers at 14 and never stopped. There was no net. Even though the family was big, everyone died while I was a child, with my last close relative being killed (my 80-year-old great aunt) right before I left for college. In many ways I’ve been my own parent since then. My mom and I are vastly different, and needed more from me than she could give me. So that’s hard, in ways it’s hard to explain to almost everyone – there being no “given” of emotional or practical support, not to mention financial ease. Of course there are a lot of people in my situation or worse, but there was a lot of trauma around death in my childhood and around that tragic death in particular. We found her, we went to the morgue. Weeks later, we went back to her apartment, where it happened, and no one had cleaned up. There was dried blood everywhere. The stench and visuals were unimaginable. And I was 18, you know? Trying to help my mother, who wanted me to stay in New York and not leave for college, and I told her and a grief counselor that I knew I had to go; I don’t think she’s ever fully forgiven me. So that’s a big thing, just negotiating being alone.
And then also I’m sick, and it’s one of these debilitating poorly-understood chronic illnesses (endometriosis) where you’re constantly misdiagnosed and badly treated. Before I knew what it was (largely as a result of doing my own research and bringing it to a doctor as a suggestion) I’ve was sent home from emergency rooms who told me I had gas or just bad cramps—yeah, fuck you, bad like childbirth cramps—and of course you have to pay anyway, even if and when they do unnecessary tests, give you unnecessary meds, misdiagnose, etc. It’s really something else being a woman with a disease linked so closely to your cycle, too. In workplaces, what do you do? If you complain too much, or miss too many days, you’re not given projects you desperately need and want, or your hours are cut, or your supervisors let you know that if you’re not “capable” then maybe you shouldn’t have this job. In every industry there are different issues, but basically suffering silently is pretty de rigueur for any woman dealing with endometriosis, and honestly for most women who want to be treated fairly. I’m basically seeing stars and need to lay down, but I’m smiling for the camera, you know? It’s only recently that I’ve started to own my relationship with chronic illness publicly, and recognize the aspects of it that are actually a disability issue. But the sorts of decisions I’ve had to make based around needing a certain amount of money, both for insurance and (especially) all the treatments it doesn’t cover—and then the lifestyle I really need to keep in order to heal and stay healthy—have often dominated the choices I make professionally and personally. I spent easily $10,000 above my insurance on appointments and treatments this year, and I’m fighting all sorts of crazy secret charges on top of that.
I also consider myself a nonbinary person, which wasn’t so much a space of verbalized assertion in the 90s and 00s when I was in high school or college, when everyone was coming out, and there’s a lot of complex exhaustion around invisible disability and access here too. It’s a strange space to occupy, a nonbinary space where you “pass” as cisgender, especially if you have a male partner. My personal beliefs and choices about relationship and family structures, gender, and so on have largely been the domain of a smaller circle of friends, but that’s changing too as public awareness of these betweens becomes more normative. It’s been a choice I’ve had to make—I’m already pressing the issue in so many ways, I’ve had to be selective at times. But hiding / making myself invisible has taken a toll.
Because of the combination of the money and health issues, I’ve never had much down time. I was always working through school, working multiple jobs, and dealing with the invisible constant strain of my health. I didn’t know how to ask for help, and get structural resources, and in my family you didn’t “do” that sort of thing, so I took on more than I needed to. I also had a partner through much of my 20s who was a recovering addict, who I supported financially, and emotionally, while in grad school and working. I had a boss who manipulated me into taking out credit cards for the business, ran up $40,000 in debt and disappeared. It ruined my credit, and I’m still working on regaining that foothold.
So it’s been a battle. I expected to have a tenure-track position in academia right now, I entered a Ph.D. program when I was 25, but not only is the system, uh, fucked, but I also came up against a huge amount of resistance there, having really innovative thinking and work (that I’ve now returned to and see the real, often before-its-time vision in) be rejected and maligned, not believing in myself as a result, needing to find another path. I tended to study up a lot, and I spared no one in my critiques, so you could say I wasn’t particularly politic about my approach. I did five years of study towards the Ph.D., and I’m grateful for what I learned there, but I’ve been scrambling to figure out how to make my way as an independent scholar, artist, and thinker ever since.
I’ve worked in the service industry for a really long time. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and there are incredible people doing incredible work there. But there’s incredible snobbery around it, and so many people look down their noses at you. My god, it took so long for me to not be ashamed of it. I got in to the top ten colleges in the country for undergrad, went to the best grad schools, and here I was in a uniform and an apron! We’re taught to deem that as failure, but I’ve really worked hard to feel good about sticking to my intellectual, ethical, and creative guns, and eking out a path for myself. But god, it’s sucked a lot of the time, and it’s been especially hard to find time for my creative practice.
Did I mention in the midst of this all that I have a daughter? Beckett, she’s six and a half, and she has two dads, whom I approached with the offer to do this unconventional thing having broken it off with my recovering addict partner and having reached the age all my doctors had told me I probably wouldn’t be able to bear children after. So we have this incredible magical child, but to say that it’s been “difficult” to carry and bear a child, my first and only, and have her not with me every day is …an understatement. So that’s always going on with me. I’m always working to model for Beckett, too – I was taught that a woman’s job is sacrifice, for everyone but herself, and I want to show her the opposite, to model radical possibility.
I think something that’s been super hard for me given all the above is the invisibility of the difficulties I’m facing, and how this can be misunderstood in the community. For instance, I often RSVP positively to other people’s events, even dear friends and close collaborators events, and I simply cannot go. This has been a real challenge for me because a lot of connecting and cementing of relationships happens in these spaces, and I’m there a fraction of the time I’d like to be. We all talk about being busy, but my particular combination of two full time jobs and a disease means that often when I have a night off every cell of my body is in so much pain I can’t do much more than lay down with a castor oil pack and heating pad. Sometimes I’m just laying there crying, I’m in so much pain. And this is something I don’t think anyone expects from me, because I present such a strong front. So I’m trying to figure out how to make that part of my story more transparent, and to encourage others to do the same. I’ve been wanting to do a book about illness and creative practice for a long time, which has now evolved into the IN CORPORE SANO anthology. I’m working on, co-edited with Jay Besemer, which is expanded into creative practice and the challenged body, including queer and transgender challenge, caretaking, mental illness, a real expanded consideration of disability. So this is a critical part of my path right now, because I have to prioritize getting better, and I want to model fearless, shameless self-care as possible, as well. I’ve also been in dialogue with various disabled and chronically ill folks (and sober folks) recently about how problematic alcohol’s central role is in our creative and social events, so that’s another space I’d like to explore and disrupt.
How have I persevered? This is where that article about resilience comes back around. When you have no choice, it really is sink or swim. And I was determined to walk on water! I’m grateful that I went to amazing schools, with amazing aid, and had a mother who wanted that for me, even if she didn’t know how to help me or what to do with the person I became as a result. Paul Goodman’s book, Growing Up Absurd, is a great example of what so many people are facing that a life of necessary action sort of wipes out. There’s always something you have to do, an immediate purpose. I think perhaps the larger purpose I got from Quakers, hippies, and being in the East Village for most of my childhood—some magical osmosis.
WC: In April, you wrote a poem a day and posted the results on social media. I really enjoyed reading these poems, many of which appeared to have been composed, or finished, on the subway. Would you be willing to speak about your creative practices as a poet, visual artist, designer (of amazing book covers), and practitioner in other media? I’m going to leave this one wide open because I’ve learned that all it takes is a small prompt to elicit remarkable, extended responses!
LDJ: Oh yes! This was one of my most successful NaPoWriMos yet, and it was absolutely because, as you say, I wrote a huge number of them in transit: on the subway, on Amtrak, sitting for 10 minutes in a coffee shop or outside work, walking down the street. My days can be really…something… so I’ve needed to find strategies that work for me. Which means that constraints and protocols are my friend: in this case I tasked myself to edit very little or not at all on paper, though I composed and recomposed much of the poems in my head. I set to document these in situ, where I was when I was finished, and post these pictures of poem-on-notebook-in-space on Instagram (which feeds to my Twitter and Facebook). I learned years ago that performance is a responsibility to me – if I make a public promise to do something every day for 30 days that awareness that I might publicly embarrass myself is a great motivation. I learned this years ago as a blogger, my first big ongoing auto-assignment, started when I was 24 and learning the ways of the interwebs.
I’m also a huge fan (as a reader, viewer and audience member) of what might be called more “documentary” work, and these poems fit that mold: they observe and reflect on surroundings. While I love research and topic based work, with a lot of my recent efforts I’ve really just been enjoying practicing my craft both with language and observation, without too much pressure on a larger “intention”, whether for a manuscript or a desired topic. That said, this particular group of poems turned out to be fairly topical, in so far as April was a month of frustration with the current political climate and a time in which my attention was often on the conditions of the Anthropocene, so since I was out in public writing, you’re often getting these themes, played out on streets and subways. I called it “Overview Effect,” a phrase I think I heard on Radiolab—it’s a cognitive shift in perspective experienced by astronauts when they look down on earth and realize how crazy most humans are to focus on the shit we do given that we live on this fragile planet in the middle of an unfathomable universe. And of course I haven’t been to space, but I sort of live with that perspective. I could talk to you about my bird-of-prey spirit animal, or about my past lives, and give you some context on how and why this macro lens is one I wore even as a child, but that’s another conversation entirely.
If I didn’t say this before, I just don’t see any need for disciplinary restrictions. I am just rabid for all the tools at my disposal for becoming more facile at this whole human thing, and communicating with others scratching at the darkness. This may be disappointing to the poetry community, but I think it (text in general) grew as a primary mode of my communication as a result of certain life-constraints: time, money, space, often being alone. The ability to immediately share text, via computer, was a huge impetus to me shifting my attention there. I was sharing my photos and art via the internet too, but since I moved into virtual communities in the early 2000s, the field was so different—no Instagram, you know. I draw a huge amount too —watch and draw and observe, and this gives me great pleasure. I do a lot of biological/systems/pattern looking stuff, too, which is entirely the opposite, not from life at all, though intimately inspired by it. Mostly pen, ink, watercolor, and then photography…always photography. And, I mean, we’ve met—my physical appearance is 100% part of my art. I’m deeply interested in fashion and the coded, meta-tagged choices we make in self-presentation and body modification, and I’m constantly adapting and reshaping those choices in myriad intentional and experimental ways.
We live in a visual culture, a high-sensory demand culture, and it’s hard to get younger folks in particular to move to a single-channel sensory experience (like a book). Of course it’s always been hard to get little children, still so enamored of all of their senses, to move to single channel, so even though we talk about this experience like it’s “new,” of course it’s not. We’ve always had tons of visual and auditory stimuli, we just learned to tune it out. And it’s difficult, and maybe even dangerous, this onslaught we’ve got now, but I think it’s good for us to have to adapt. We can’t be lazy or assumptive about our modes of expression or communication.
Which means that I make print books, but I’m not going to assume someone’s not going to be using their phone or listening to music while this happens. So I want to engage them in multiple ways. Immediately, I work to make pages that are arresting not only in content but in design. I agonize over millimeters, moving margins and building page layouts. Every mark on every page is intentional, I’m not only trying to make a visual impact with the covers, though of course they’re deeply important. I mean, a book with a shitty cover can have amazing work inside but I totally judge a book by its cover! And so do most consumers, and that’s not totally bad. It means that people have high expectations of visual representation, that they want to get a non-verbal sense, a proprioceptic sense, of the text to come, through a cover. How fucking cool is that? I love that challenge. That’s a favorite challenge as a designer, and I love making cover art myself to meet this challenge, working on and with typography, and working with artists to meet this challenge with every book I do. I would love to link more to sound and video content in future, and really want to use that scanning app that allows you to embed interactive content in text. I used to use QR codes just for the statement of the thing, to make it known that we expect and encourage multiple platforms of experience, but I just got tired of seeing them there.
It’s funny, it took me a while to really see the narrative arc of books as a primary model of expression in my art practice, but I have a long history, since even my early days making art in grade school and high school, with creative book making as part of my art practice. Really, I am driven by conceptual design, by the creation of objects and especially installations around a theme, experiment, or question, and I’m always, always jotting down curation and installation ideas, but I haven’t been focused on that part of my practice, at least in execution, for a while. My two big solo installations in 2000 and 2001 I still find pretty remarkable. Both were very informed by my anthropological practice and dealt with identity, public and private space, representation, privilege, and reflexive consideration of art practice.
I was part of a three-person show at Undercurrent Projects in New York a few years ago, which was great because it allowed me a lot of conceptual rein within a constraint. We were tasked by Joseph Quintela to make “books without words,” each of which actually have ISBN’s. I came up with (and naturally designed all the branding for) this sort of 1950s inspired faux corporation, “Future Form,” and my work for the show was their trade show materials, which demonstrated how in the future we’d be able to scientifically derive “perfect” poems utilizing wave form algorithms and other mathematical equations; I made overhead projector slides and a huge presentation poster, and some vintage audio reels with “sonnet” versions on them. The basic hypothesis was to have been that as the human is largely water, studying sound wave patterns and water wave patterns, and deriving their movement through the human ecosystem, we (Future Form) had been able to perfect entirely sound-driven poems that would supersede our limited abilities with language. I think my tag line was “Language was Then, Sound is Now.” It was great fun, and a pretty good representation of how in my visual work I tie in text, research, design, typography, and even “business” to open up social and cultural dialogue.
I miss music the most, probably. I studied and played music for many years and I’m deeply engaged in the avant-garde music scene here in New York (and my partner is a musician), but it’s been hard to really bring that back into my practice. I did build some electronic instruments (a theremin and some other fun toys) and write a short conceptual composition for this grant I got to work with the Theremidi Orchestra (from Ljubiana, they’re amazing) at Eyebeam maybe a year and a half ago, and some of those written-out conceptual pieces have music and sound work in them. I am committed to getting back there, soon, and I do work with sound recording of text—even a little mixing. I have a Soundcloud, had a “spreaker” podcast for a while. It’s one of those “as soon as I have even a little more time” dreams to work with sound more.
WC: By 2017, if my math is correct, The OS will have published over 40 print texts, not to mention all the Open Source/P2P content it will have generated. Would you like to say something about your vision of The OS’s trajectory, at least as much as would be possible for so deliberately open-ended a project? Are there new frontiers you hope to engage and/or open up in print, Open Source, and beyond? I guess I want to ask a question about connectedness and its relation to processes of translation—not just “bringing over” text in one language to another but crossing cultural and geographic borders. The inaugural work in the ‘Unsilenced Texts’ series will be Ashraf Fayadh’s Instructions Within, translated by Mona Kareem, due out later this year. Maybe you could say something about the activist energies and desires of The OS and its transnational solidarity with artists working under repressive regimes.
LDJ: As far as print output is concerned, I’d like to see the press continue to grow, and indeed I have far more projects coming in every day than I can possibly handle at my current bandwidth. But I don’t see that being the case for long. I have developed an incredibly efficient model, and could turn around double the number of books I’m doing now—maybe even more—if I am able to create sustainable funding for this work as my primary labor, and create the ability to work on these projects full time, so that’s the current challenge at hand.
While I continue to be open to all sorts of projects that come in both from known community members and total strangers through our Submittable site, what’s really exciting for me right now book-wise exists in the space of book-as-curated document/object/project, which is to say, projects similar to “There Might Be Others,” where I’m working with creative people from a wide range of disciplines on a project basis, really helping curate, guide, and facilitate conversation and dialogue with creators and performers, both making archival and open source documentation and working with community education outreach. I’m currently working closely with the members of the So Percussion ensemble on the development of a book to be released later this year, in tandem with their interdisciplinary piece “A Gun Show,” apolitical / text / performance / percussion collaboration with performer/choreographer Emily Johnson and director Ain Gordon, which will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
This very rich space of collaborative, curatorial, dramaturgical dialogue is a wide open field, and performers and artists are responding to the possibility of working on these projects (a new concept to most) with fervor. Often, the players are well versed in collaboration and extremely receptive to process dialogue and various exercises and prompts I provide, and give great feedback on both textual and design elements. These other disciplines are also acutely sensitive to the danger of their output being lost to history, as so much of its documentation moves into primarily born-digital media and publications. The OS (and I) are only just scratching the surface of possibility here.
The other major print thrust (as you know well) will be a move towards translation and global publishing. I could do a whole other interview about how absolutely irresponsible our relationship to a global awareness of literary and artistic output is, but I’ll say this: now that I have the tools with which to not only publish translation of contemporary texts but also to connect communities of practice, this thrust will be more and more visible in The OS. I’ve always used my own social media communities to reach out across geographic boundaries for contributors to our online series, and it’s how I found Nada Al-Fares (Faris), a slam poet in Kuwait whose book we’ll be publishing next year. I’ve been plotting for some time strategies for international, hybrid virtual-local translation “hackathons,” instructions for which I would open source and encourage use of widely. It was kismet to meet Kristen Gallagher and Chris Alexander at the Poetics conference in Buffalo recently, because what they’re doing with crowd-sourced translation at LaGuardia Community College is hugely inspirational, and potentially locks in place quite nicely, rounding out some of the tactical aspects of my still-in-process planning.
This year The OS has begun a project we’re calling : “Glossarium: Unsilenced Texts and Modern Translations,” for which Stephen Ross, Ariel Resnikoff, and Mona Kareem have signed on as contributing editors. This is something I’ve been working towards since beginning to publish, and a critical step for me and The Operating System—I see facilitating the translation and distribution of silenced voices as perhaps the most immediately vital work I can do as a publisher, a space where we begin to see the power of the book as a tool in the global fight for social justice and human rights.
I think we mentioned earlier that Mona and I have been working closely together to bring the first Arabic-English translation of Ashraf Fayadh’s Instructions Within to print, later this year, which will be the first book of the series. We’ll also be releasing a UK version in print and e-book versions, in collaboration with English PEN. If you’re not familiar with Fayadh or his case, he is a poet and visual artist, from Palestine, currently in prison in Saudi Arabia for apostasy (heresy). This year, his death sentence was reduced to 8 years and 800 lashes—still a death sentence, or close. Instructions Within is the book in which the verses at the center of his case appear. Mona gave a great interview about the claims with a close reading of the text on public radio recently.
With Mona’s help, and support from Words Without Borders, I’ve also started a translation pop-up “library” under the Glossarium moniker which will appear at the Poetry Festival at Governor’s Island this summer. I’ve been talking to Jen Hofer about combining it somehow with the similar efforts of Antena, which I hadn’t yet seen when the project got approval. No need to reiterate! I’d love to combine forces (always my preference…back to the efficiency conversation!).
In terms of other avenues—scaling up. Bringing more folks on, continuing to encourage organizations and individuals to use The OS as a platform, if they are looking for space to experiment online and off. Peter (Milne Greiner, my deputy editor) and I have been working on a “vertical,” to launch soon—an online “periodical” of new creative output—and also on a plan for a workshop based one-off publication, which would be produced zine-style and distributed informally. Working on what we’ve long joked would be called “Academics Anonymous”, a tract/essay/pamphlet series, getting more formal inquiry out from behind paywalls and encouraging long-form writing. Focusing on more open source online resources. Collecting curricula, advice and strategy. Thinking always about how to do that brick and mortar space, so that this work can happen visible to the public and so we can create sustainable income, and build a model that can be reproduced and replicated widely. That’s the long term plan, the utopian vision. It’s surprisingly within reach!
The intention of The OS is truly an activist intention, because it seeks to disrupt at both the micro and macro scale our understanding of ourselves and our practice and our often invisible, complicit participation in systems that are causing our personal, cultural, and environmental destruction—and, in doing so, begin to offer immediate tools to individuals and organizations seeking inroads to a different space of inquiry and behavior.
One of the most critical spaces available to me as a publisher is that of humanizing the Other. Even the most “aware” and sensitive of us has been conditioned our entire lives with linguistic, political, cultural, social, visual codes of othering and disconnection. The power of the poetics of a single voice living under a repressive regime is a remarkable thing—aligning the reader through shared human emotional and bodily experience to an individual life. We need to be re-sensitized to the humanity of each individual story, to break ourselves as global citizens out from behind the numbing firewall of statistics and deeply, deeply flawed “news.” And this can be hard to scale, but translations that un-silence voices under repressive regimes, distributing as widely as possible, making that work available, that’s a start. There’s incredible work being done in networks that run entirely parallel to each other, unaware of each other. The number of poets who consider themselves activists who’ve never heard of 100,000 Poets for Change is unfortunate, for instance, since other countries have really hit the ground running with this initiative. Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion’s exhaustive work with this project is really something incredible. I tried to raise awareness, to support the initiative as best I could when I first learned of it a few years ago, by interviewing facilitators of 100TPC events from all over the world and posting them on the site, but I didn’t have the bandwidth to handle the scale of the help they needed. I’m circling back now that I’m able, as we’ve grown to more capacity.
So part of what I see as my work, as the OS’s work, is systemic—being the weaver, of sorts. Creating pathways of connection across these networks, helping others scale, reducing redundancies of common effort so energies can be more productive, spreading awareness, providing access to tools, etc etc. So much of what we struggle with is the ineffability of approaching the vastness: where do I begin? and then sort of just dialing it in as best we are able, so many of us having no real mentors, or mentors who are pre-digital, who are learning alongside us how to navigate (and build) this rhizomatic landscape as we go along. Ah yes, the rhizome! I gave basically this same soapbox talk at Naropa in 2012, about how to build rhizomatically to circumvent the repressive illusion of the scarcity economy. I spoke very passionately about code to a room full of poets, ha, but it went over pretty well, and it’s still going. I’m still giving this same talk every day via what I’m performing via The OS. And people, I think, are starting to pay attention. Maybe it’s because I seem a little crazy, but I’ll do whatever it takes to get the conversation going in the direction of change.
Lynne DeSilva-Johnson is a slinger of image, text, sound, and code, a frequent collaborator across a wide range of disciplines, a community activist, and a regular curator of events in NYC and beyond. She has served as an adjunct in the CUNY system for a decade, and as a K-12 teaching artist around NYC since 2001. She graduated with a double BA in Fine Arts and Anthropology-Sociology from Swarthmore College, has a Masters Degree in Urban Design from CCNY and is ABD for her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the CUNY Graduate Center. As a social practice artist and poet, Lynne has appeared at The Dumbo Arts Festival, Naropa University, Bowery Arts and Science, The NYC Poetry Festival, Eyebeam, Poets House, Undercurrent Projects, Mellow Pages, The New York Public Library, The Poetry Project, Industry City Distillery, Independent Curators International, and the Cooper Union, among others. She began blogging in 2003 and has been deeply involved in citizen journalism initiatives both online and off since that time. Lynne serves as a contributing editor at the 23-year old, East Village based Boog City, and is the founder and managing editor of The Operating System, an arts organization and independent publisher based in Brooklyn, where her family has lived since the 1890s.