August 26, 2012KR BlogBlogChats

Theft as art, art as theft: an interview with Austin Kleon

In a 1966 interview with The Paris Review—the same interview that would inspire artist Tom Phillips to first employ the techniques that led him to create A Humument—William S. Burroughs credited the American poet Brion Gysin with the invention of the cut-up poem with which he himself had experimented. (“Of course, when you think of it, The Waste Land was the first great cut-up collage…” he conceded.) It’s been written that the first known cento is possibly Hosidius Geta’s Medea, composed circa the third or fourth century with lines by Virgil, but the cut-up poem (or the found poem, or the blackout poem, or the erasure, ad infinitum), with its visceral confrontation of the text as well as the material on which the text appears, is a distinctly modern embodiment of this older phenomenon.

Austin Kleon, whose two books Newspaper Blackout and Steal Like an Artist have managed to catch the attention of not only poets but general readers, is one of the most visible contemporary proponents of this age-old practice. His work comes up against similarly time-honored notions about “originality” that fall more in line with the ideals of Romanticism than the avant-garde; Kenneth Goldsmith, in his essay “Uncreative Writing” for The Chronicle of Higher Education, paraphrases critic Marjorie Perloff as claiming that “our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated,” and offering an updated notion that “would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination.”

If—in an epoch of instant mass communication where prodigious streams of data are spewed by sources left and right—this is our criterion for competence, then Kleon’s pieces are no-frills examples of refining static into sound. Kleon first gained popularity for taking a permanent marker to newspapers and excavating sentences that were at once clean and linear but also obliquely poetic. These works, which draw on the tradition of everything from the cento to the projects of Gysin, Burroughs, and Phillips, spawned an online fervor of those interested in appropriating the same technique; some of the resultant pieces can be viewed at a site Kleon has dedicated to them, akin to the site Wave Books has dedicated to erasures. “I felt I had been working toward the same goal; thus it was a major revelation to me when I actually saw it being done,” said Burroughs of his discovery that others were using and appropriating found language. It seems, likewise, that something in Kleon’s pursuits have snagged the information-saturated zeitgeist: a desire for coherency, for stability, for a key with which to translate the barrage of electronic speech. A desire that in many ways resembles the inverse of Williams quipped in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

Considering how integral the process of physical modification is to Kleon’s newspaper blackouts, it makes sense that his subsequent work Steal Like an Artist both explains and vindicates the rationale behind using a pre-existing text as a basis for one’s own. Steal Like an Artist provides enough context to elevate blackouts, erasures, and found works past their categorization as mere “alternative,” deviant approaches to conventional poetics and to a status as realizations of altogether different philosophies of art: those which value, as Kleon says, “transformation” over any commitment to shopworn notions of originality. His search for urtexte seems to reaffirm an interest in “public” language, i.e. the language present in American daily life, in his “de-Signs” series also, which finds tidbits of absurdity and pathos in the imperatives of official signage. Whether talking about the germination of an idea or uncovering the subliminal in journalism, he undermines the prevailing conception of originality as that which can be traced back to a material thing—a poem or artwork made exclusively by one artist—and replaces it with a sense of originality that prizes vision: not what one sees, but how one sees. Each newspaper blackout is a selective act of seeing, a message reverse-engineered. Nothing copied in the process escapes the fingerprints of its copier: “A wonderful flaw about human beings is that we’re incapable of making perfect copies,” he writes in Steal Like an Artist before calling for bodily engagement when constructing art, and before making plain the analog and digital steps he took to produce his blackouts.

“Art is sourced. Apprentices graze in the field of culture,” declared Jonathan Lethem in his essay “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism,” which appeared in the February 2007 issue of Harper’s. “For I is someone else,” wrote Arthur Rimbaud in a letter. Je est un autre—Kleon’s books mean progress toward a responsible ethics of re-appropriation (while prominent writers like Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria are found guilty of fabrication and un-transformative theft), but the fact that even Steal’s own cataloguing page states the usual “No portion of this book may be reproduced…” boilerplate demonstrates just how prevalent and predominant the attitude of seeing things in black-and-white, copyrighted terms is. Over the past few months, Kleon answered a group of questions I sent him about everything from intellectual property law to how one “enters” the page; our conversation can be read below.

The Kenyon Review: In Steal Like an Artist, you write that when you start to see the world in terms of what you can borrow from it, “you stop worrying about what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’…” How do you negotiate critical valuation (deciding what you like and don’t like aesthetically) with choosing what you’re going to steal? Are there things you like aesthetically but won’t, for some reason, ever steal? What criteria go into this?

Austin Kleon: Oh, there’s plenty of art I find beautiful and interesting but I can’t find anything particularly worth stealing in it—there’s also plenty of boring and ugly art out there in which I find a lot of little nuggets to steal.  That might be one of the weak points in the book—I don’t emphasize enough how you can sometimes learn more and find more to steal from “bad” art than “good” art. How sometimes “bad” art has more to teach you. And that’s not to mention the fact that sometimes what’s worth stealing isn’t from art at all—it’s something you saw on a billboard or on the back of a Mini-Wheats box or on an episode of Martha Stewart…

KR: And speaking of criteria—should found artworks be subject to a different sort of criticism because of what we know about their origins? Or should they stand on the same footing as, say, an “original” novel? How do we determine what counts as accomplishment with found works?

AK: You’re asking the wrong person—I don’t think about artwork in terms of “accomplishment.” I think about what appeals to me and what doesn’t, what I can steal from and what I can’t. I’m a very simple viewer of art.

Once you start making judgments based on how an artist got to their final product, once you start judging an artist’s means versus his end, that is a tricky business.

And of course, there are some people who would say that all artwork is “found” artwork.

“In a Suburb” by Austin Kleon

KR: Let’s talk a little more about originality. “Nothing is original,” your book flat-out declares; everything consists of borrowing in one form or another. But there’s still some element to an Austin Kleon book that makes it distinctly you, right? If originality in the material sense is a wrongheaded notion (and I agree, making something out of nothing is impossible), then can we still have originality in terms of arrangement? To what extent are found works “original” works?

AK: I’d like to think that there’s something distinct about my books and my art, and that thing is me: my biography, my geography, my genetics my educational background, the order in which I’ve bumped up against things. Montaigne said he did nothing but make a bouquet of other men’s flowers—all he provided was the string to tie them together.

It’s the same thing when you sit down to make a blackout poem—you can give the same newspaper article to a hundred different people and you will get a hundred different poems. Just as if a hundred people read the same book, there will be a hundred different books that were just read. Everyone is coming from somewhere different, everyone is looking for something different.

I guess what I’m interested in is why “originality” is a trait we look for in art at all. It’s like “authenticity”—what does it really mean to me for something to be “authentic”? Why do I need something to be original or authentic for me to like it? For it to mean something to me? Sometimes I’ll be in a new city and it’ll be dinner time and someone will say, “Oh, let’s go to this Mexican place—it’s very authentic.” And I’ve started saying, “Don’t take me to the authentic Mexican place. Take me to the good Mexican place. If they happen to be the same, that’s great.”

KR: There’s been a lot of discussion, as of late, about modifying intellectual property laws in the digital age. In a paper from the Journal of Libertarian Studies titled “Against Intellectual Property,” N. Stephan Kinsella argues that intellectual property in the form of patents and copyrights “cannot be justified,” and poses problems for consumers (and, potentially, artists). “Since use of another’s idea does not deprive him of its use, no conflict over its use is possible; ideas, therefore, are not candidates for property rights,” he writes. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think the changing mediums of electronic publishing necessitate that intellectual property laws be changed—and if so, how?

AK: Honestly, I used to work for lawyers, I find copyright law horribly boring, and there are so many people who talk about it more intelligently than I do. Look, I make my living off my copyrights. I’m not going to say I think copyright should be abolished completely. What I do think is that copyright law has been perverted from its original intention—to encourage inventors, artist, etc. to share their work and make it public by allowing them to be compensated for a set period of time—into something that lets powerful corporations like Disney keep a stranglehold on our shared culture.

Pages from Steal Like an Artist

KR: In a talk you gave at Google earlier this year, you mentioned that the inspiration for Newspaper Blackout came from, well, a pile of newspapers stacked near your desk. Where did the inspiration for Steal Like an Artist come from? Do you have any other stories about how encounters with the objects of the world have prompted you to make art out of them?

AK: Steal Like An Artist began as a quote collection—I’ve always been obsessed with collage, and when I was making the newspaper blackout work, I started noticing how many of my favorite artists used words like “steal” and “borrow” and “filch” and “theft” to describe their own methods. So in early 2010 I published a blog post called “25 Quotes To Help You Steal Like An Artist.” And then about a year later, a community college asked me to give a convocation speech and they wanted a title right away, so I thought “Steal Like An Artist” sounded good.

There was so much stuff out there about remix culture—if, as my friend Kirby Ferguson said, “Everything is a remix,” then what? How should artists who don’t necessarily consider themselves DJs or remixers operate? So I wrote the speech, delivered it, then posted the text and the slides on my blog, and that’s when it sort of blew up and spread around the internet, and that’s when it became clear that it would be my next book.

One of Kleon’s “de-Signs”

KR: When you’re making a blackout piece—or an erasure, like those in your “de-Sign” series—how do you “enter” the page? Most of the text you leave behind in Newspaper Blackout still reads coherently; do you proceed from top to bottom, left to right? Is there any right way to go about this?

AK: I try really hard not not read the articles—I try to treat the newspaper like one of those “Word Find” puzzle books that you get when you’re a kid. It’s not easy. One time a teacher told me she tells her students to read the paper backwards, that way the language and the words are made strange and you can see it as just raw language for you to mess with.  

KR: Do you make any distinctions, in practice or in theory, between blackouts and erasures? Does one do something that the other doesn’t? How do the particulars of each affect the resultant work?

AK: Not really. To me, they’re both just a form of collage.

Kleon with dog Milo (Credit: Meghan Kleon)

KR: In an interview with Forbes.com earlier this year, you mentioned stealing from a number of “writers who draw”—Lynda Barry, Vonnegut, Saul Steinberg, etc.—and Steal Like an Artist is full of illustrations you constructed yourself. Do you see yourself as an artist first, or a writer? Did you start to write before you drew, or vice versa, and how did those impulses intersect?

AK: I personally see myself as a writer first and an artist second, but I can’t tell you with any truth or accuracy which comes first, the pictures or the words. Sometimes it’s the words, sometimes it’s the pictures, sometimes they come together. (By the way, I stole that short bio, “a writer who draws,” from Saul Steinberg.)

KR: In the same interview, you said: “We’re still suffering from the fallout of the Romanticists, and we imagine creativity as the domain of the lone, tortured genius, who is anointed from gods (or demons) with the gift of creativity. That image has damaged and destroyed countless young talents and has kept so many people from believing that they can bring creativity into their own lives.” With social media saturating so many lives, how should artists build communities? Does the internet (and instant publishing) furnish opportunities for artistic communities that are more, or less, meaningful—or identical—to those communities in the past?

AK: I think the stuff artists share with each other online is pretty much the same stuff they always have—they bitch (on Twitter), they show each other little bits and pieces of what they’re working on (on their blogs), they mention good books they’re reading (on Facebook), etc. The thing is now they can do it with a much wider range of folks. And what’s great is that you can use your interaction online as a springboard for meeting in real life. On this last book tour, I had the very unique experience of getting together a bunch of internet friends when I hit a certain city—some of them didn’t know each other, but they knew me, and we already knew each other’s work, and sort of knew each other. So, when we got together, there was no small talk, we just dove in and started chatting about the big stuff. I don’t think anything will trump a bunch of artists in a bar drinking together.

“That First Book” by Austin Kleon

KR: “The artist is a collector,” you say in Steal Like an Artist. This made me think of Joan Didion’s admonition about the importance of writers knowing when to make a note. What are your methods and means of collecting, and how do you decide what gets made into “art”?

AK: I keep a notebook and pen on me at all times and I take a lot of photos with my iPhone. I also blog and tweet a lot. People underestimate what an awesome public filing cabinet blogging and tweeting can be. They also neglect how important it is to go back through your notes and archives afterwards, to look for little bits of ideas. That’s why I’m a meticulous tagger online—pretty much all the chapters in Steal came from blog tags. I wrote the book by going back through my notes, seeing the tags, piecing things together. What gets used really depends on where and when I revisit it.

KR: Does the writer or artist using found text have any responsibilities? To correctly attribute the sources of his material, perhaps, or to not misrepresent those sources? Is everything really fair game for the taking?

AK: For me “transformation” is the true key—taking your source material far enough that it’s something completely different. (This also happens to be the key tenent of “fair use,” which keeps me from being sued.) As for misrepresenting your sources—all of my blackouts are made through contextomy, or, “quoting out of context.” Misrepresenting is what makes it work.

KR: When you were making Newspaper Blackout, were there any other books of found or appropriated text that informed your process or altered your thinking? In the Forbes.com interview, you reference the work of Anne Lamott (Bird By Bird) and Shel Silverstein (Where the Sidewalk Ends) as having an influence on your thinking about art; on your website, you talk about Patti Smith’s Just Kids.What other books or artworks have stayed with you over the years?

One of Kleon’s blackouts under construction

AK: For Blackout, there was an article by Paul Collins in The Believer called “The Lost Symphony” that really gave me a lot to use for the “history” section.

As for books: What It Is by Lynda Barry, Make A World by Ed Emberley, Ways of Seeing by John Berger, The Gift by Lewis Hyde, Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, Six Memos for the Next Millenium by Italo Calvino, Secret Knowledge by David Hockney, The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte, Joe Brainard’s I Remember… god, there are too many to mention.

KR: True to your own theories, you’ve pursued a number of projects that combine the ideas of others and re-express them with your own materials and forms. Your importation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “story shapes” to Google Correlate (which lets users graph trajectories and then find out what search terms have followed them), for instance, produced some fascinating, surreal results. Likewise your mind maps of speeches and presentations. How do you make use of others’ ideas without misrepresenting them? Do you ever worry about being too reductive?

AK: I honestly don’t worry about either of those things. Other people’s ideas interest me only in terms of what I can do with them, where I can take them. I’m a scavenger—I’m just looking for things to use.

A page from Steal Like an Artist

KR: “You need to find a way to bring your body into your work,” you write; you’ve also talked about the importance of having “digital” and “analog” workspaces. Is the social movement toward electronic mediums taking us out of contact with our bodies, and also with the material forms of art in general? What’s gained by swimming against the tidal wave of digitalization?

AK: All I know is that there is a certain kind of magic that happens when I write by hand versus typing on the computer. Something different happens. For me what’s interesting is the back and forth between analog and digital—creating things by hand, feeding them into the computer, rearranging them, publishing them out into the world, getting feedback, then bringing that back into the analog space and making something new with it.