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Interview with Gary Indiana

In July 2015, T: The New York Times Style Magazine gathered twenty-eight ‘artists, writers, performers, musicians and intellectuals who defined New York’s inimitable and electrifying cultural scene of the late 1970s and early ’80s’, for a photo shoot entitled ‘They Made New York’. Among them were Philip Glass, Chuck Close, Susan Sarandon, Fran Lebowitz and DJ Kool Herc. Almost everyone smiles, except for one man in the middle, who carries the face not of a celebrant but of a survivor. This man is the writer, artist and filmmaker Gary Indiana.

 

Born Gary Hoisington, Indiana was raised in Derry, New Hampshire. At 16 he was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, only to drop out shortly after. He would crash around various communes until he found his place among a group of filmmakers developing what became known as ‘narrative porn’ – smut with a storyline, which would come to resemble modern reality TV. In 1973, Indiana arrived in Los Angeles, where he was hired as a receptionist for an inner-city medical clinic and had access to ‘an endless supply of pharmaceutical amphetamines’. He took occupancy at the Bryson Apartment Hotel, a complex once considered ‘the finest apartment-house west of New York City’, and later made noir-famous by Raymond Chandler, who used it as a backdrop in his 1943 story ‘The Lady in the Lake’. By 1977 the Bryson was inhabited by junkies and dregs; Indiana, too, was falling apart. A near death experience sent him packing to Manhattan, a place that to him had already had its moment: ‘I didn’t come to New York,’ he points out, ‘until 1978.’

 

Defining Indiana by location, occupation or time is a tricky endeavour. In the early eighties, he acted in experimental films, put on plays and wrote art criticism for The Village Voice, before publishing his debut story collection Scar Tissue and Other Stories in 1987. His first novel, Horse Crazy (1989), in which an older male writer falls for a younger former junkie-turned-waiter, is set against the backdrop of an AIDS-ravaged New York. The writer character closely resembles Indiana, distilling his life into literature in a fashion that predates the work of Ben Lerner or Sheila Heti. This interest in documentation – of self or otherwise – characterises Indiana’s prose: for Indiana, merely living is a poetic statement.

 

Over the past decade Indiana has frequently decamped from New York to Havana, a place that features prominently in his first memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love. So too does his time in Los Angeles, which he recollects with his trademark sardonicism. New York is notably absent, as are the many projects that would accredit him for the New York Times shoot. When I pressed him about their omission, he gave me a wry smile: ‘Why do you care?’

 

This interview took place last November in Café Lucien, in New York’s East Village. Beforehand, I’d Googled his image and found a man with short dyed blond hair dotted with leopard spots and wrapped in a black fur coat. In a sunlit corner, I found a much less intimidating figure sitting at the table nearest the sun-drenched windows. I introduced myself just as he bit into a slice of table bread. Rather than starting things off on the wrong foot, Gary took a moment to chew, sipped his water and smiled. He said, in a voice both friendly and slightly curled, ‘I’m ready to meet you now.’

 

Q

The White Review

I Can Give You Anything But Love is divided between Cuba and earlier memories of growing up, and most of it focused on your time in Los Angeles. Why these two periods?

A

Gary Indiana

— The first drafts of the book were longer than the finished thing, and contained more episodes in Europe and New York. I made a gradual decision to take out almost anything dealing with well-known individuals, and with myself becoming a ‘public person’. I didn’t want to write the kind of book people buy for gossip value. So I removed almost everything except my early life in California, among people who weren’t famous, and later times in Cuba – again, among people nobody’s ever heard of.

 

I didn’t know what I was writing or why I was writing it until I’d worked on it for a couple of years; it was a fumbling process of clarifying certain questions I’d always had in my brain, and maybe answering a few, first of all. I didn’t expect to write so much about my friendship with Ferd Eggan an influential AIDS awareness activist, he later served as Los Angeles’ AIDS coordinator from 1993 to 2001]. It was an important friendship in some ways, and in other ways it had almost nothing to do with my everyday existence, or with his, for that matter, even when we were both living in the same city – but the nervous, intermittent bond between us suggested a way of organising the book, to some extent. Writing about it freed me from certain myths I’d spun around that friendship for years. For instance, that Ferd always felt that he should’ve been doing what I was doing in life, and that I kind of felt that I should have been doing what he was doing. That may have been slightly true, inconsistently true. He was, in fact, sometimes a frustrated artist and writer, and a little part of me sometimes felt guilty for not becoming a political activist. But over the years I had exaggerated this in my mind into something of huge symbolic importance, and it really wasn’t such a striking theme in our relationship.

Q

The White Review

— When writing these relationships, is it possible to depict them without making people unhappy?

A

Gary Indiana

— Probably not, unless you ignore everything you know about them. If they happen to be dead, however you depict them is going to make somebody who knew them unhappy. Ferd is someone I knew, so to speak, from a particular angle, often at variance from the roles he played in his professional life, and his other friendships; all I mean by that is that we are all different people with different people. As Witold Gombrowicz said, people create one another in an inter-human collaboration that’s never exactly the same from one interaction to the next. I can’t imagine that Ferd’s other friends would find my portrait of him at all adequate. They knew a slightly different person than I did. Moreover, they probably knew him much better than I did.

Q

The White Review

— There’s practically no mention of yourself as a writer or an artist in the book. People often read memoirs with a vested interest in someone’s life, but you only open a few windows, rather than unlock the house.

A

Gary Indiana

— I think it’s pretty clear from the book that I had a hard time doing anything. I didn’t even believe I could do anything until, quite honestly, I was almost 30. I don’t think my artistic process, or my career as a writer or artist, would be interesting for anybody to read about, unless you talk about collaborations with other people. But the abjection and cluelessness of my early life – that’s compelling, because so many people experience the same sort of thing at that age. And Cuba, too, because until very recently, it was still an exotic place.

 

I realised after working on the memoir for a long time that I wanted to avoid recounting events that could be construed as the ‘true’ versions of stories I’d already recounted in fictional form, since what one does in writing fiction is so widely and often quite maliciously misconstrued. So that was one consideration, avoiding material I’d used in fiction in one way or another. At the same time, I discovered that writing a memoir, if you’re actually a writer, involves formal and aesthetic choices that make it impossible to tell ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’, as if you were giving sworn testimony in court. Court transcripts make pretty dull reading.

 

I actually hate contemporary memoirs. Almost without exception, I hate the whole genre. The whole memoir genre, the comparable reality TV craze – all of it is corrupt and pathological. The more people claim what they’re telling or showing is real, the further it is from the truth. People never tell the whole truth about themselves, and only ever tell part of the truth from behind the safety of a mask. Why do you think fiction was invented in the first place? A good novel is a thousand times more revealing than a memoir. Maybe Rousseau or Chateaubriand or Saint Augustine can be considered exceptions, but I doubt even that.

Q

The White Review

— Could the omission of your New York years also have been a response to the fetishisation of that era? There is far more literature about New York in that era than about 1970s Los Angeles. What was Los Angeles like at that time?

A

Gary Indiana

— All the recent necrophiliac nostalgia for the late 1970s and early 1980s New York – a period that I did draw on a lot in Horse Crazy and Rent Boy, also in Do Everything in the Dark – is so off-base that I didn’t want to engage with it at all. After I came to New York in 1978, I experienced about three years of chaotic, impoverished, youthful excitement and desperate creative improvisation, followed by a decade of nonstop death of people around me from AIDS, while scrambling for survival the whole time by writing journalism. New York was never the same after the epidemic. In fact, it’s been a horribly depressing, punitive city to live in ever since, thanks to the disappearance of so many vital people, and thanks to real estate developers and Wall Street. But people who keep dredging up what a great place New York was thirty or forty years ago should just shut up and open a funeral home, where nobody minds if you talk about dead people all day.

 

If you want an idea of what LA was like in the seventies, you should watch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie by John Cassavetes, whom I knew back then. You can see the way the merciless sunlight hit the Sunset Strip at noon, how the freeways were practically deserted after 10 p.m. – it really was a different place, a haunted backwater. Nothing was happening except punk, which emerged in ’74 or ’75. But LA is 760 square miles, and punk happened in what amounted to two or three blocks of that space. Otherwise, it was a dead town. It was a pleasant place to feel dead, too. I love LA. Even today, you can find a stillness there that you can’t in New York, despite the architectural infill, which is really astonishing. You can still arrive at the dead zone. That’s not always such a bad feeling, when everything just stops. You can also have a social life that isn’t mired in nostalgia or hobbled by a completely hateful and physically ugly environment. There’s a very different feeling at 2 a.m. in LA than in New York. A feeling that life is still possible.

Q

The White Review

— You mention in the book that your apartment in the Bryson building was featured in the 1990 film The Grifters and then later in Magnolia, the 1999 film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Was that a coincidence?

A

Gary Indiana

— I’ve always thought that whoever wrote The Grifters, or Stephen Frears, who directed it, must’ve lived at the Bryson when I did, because it was very much like it is in the movie – an apartment hotel, with a front desk and so forth, managed by the same type of gossipy old Midwestern windbag. But I didn’t know Stephen Frears, or P. T. Anderson. Anyway, it’s not my apartment in The Grifters – though what had been my apartment windows are featured in Magnolia. Complete coincidence in both cases.

 

LA is full of those types of coincidence. For the most part, no one bats an eye. I recently acted in a Laura Parnes film called Tour Without End. I played a version of Dave Mustaine, the guitarist who got kicked out of Metallica. One night we were filming in this club in Brooklyn. A woman was performing, afterwards we got into a conversation, and it turned out that her parents owned Circus of Books, the porn bookstore that was adjacent to my first LA apartment on North La Jolla Avenue in the early ’70s. They were apparently fairly conventional, middle-class Jewish business people; her mother would say things like, ‘Oh I’ve got a carton of crack pipes coming in this week.’ Business as usual.

Q

The White Review

— You’re going back to LA in a few days for a show?

A

Gary Indiana

— It’s a gallery show at 356 Mission Road. Some photographs and videos. I’m going out to install it. There’s also going to be an event co-hosted by Semiotext(e), who are reissuing several of my novels, where some people will be reading and talking about my work.

 

I’ve been shooting film portraits that are a little bit like the Warhol screen tests. A lot like them, really, but in colour, some with sound, some without – fixed shots that go on for five minutes. They’re really fascinating. I set up one shot, the same as all of them, and the guy came in chewing a piece of gum, so I told him to keep doing that, and his mouth is just riveting, because there’s no other motion in the frame. I’ve got about five people so far. I don’t know how I’m going to present these things, whether I’ll put them on a loop, or in light boxes. I’ve been making little films for a while. I’d really like to make a real narrative film, though maybe the time for me to do that has gone by. I’m showing Stanley Park also, the piece I had in the Whitney Biennial, and Kabatas Scattered Pictures, a long video I shot in Istanbul and Ireland.

Q

The White Review

— In ‘Stanley Park’, you turn a derelict prison’s panoptic eye into footage of jellyfish and images of young, incarcerated Cuban men. In the piece on jellyfish you wrote for The Fabulist, you wrote: ‘It occurred to me that I had never seen an actual jellyfish. I thought I ought to film some, and put them in a movie I was making about a derelict prison complex on an island in southwest Cuba. The two subjects somehow belonged together.’ Why do you think these subjects resonate with each other? Do jellyfish hold any symbolism for you?

A

Gary Indiana

— I don’t attach any symbolism to anything. I didn’t think of convicts or prisons in connection to jellyfish except as visual elements of a picture. They ended up together in Stanley Park as a happy editing experiment. The only time you see ‘young Cuban men’ in the film is when two guys are drinking sodas and talking in a café; the only human figures you see ‘in’ the jail are very evanescent, overlaid images from gay porn movies, which mostly vanish almost before you register what they are. I wanted them to evoke the ghosts of prisoners who’d occupied these jails.

 

I shot some jellyfish footage in Toronto that turned out overexposed. A while later I shot the buildings and cell blocks in the Presidio Modelo. Afterwards I went to Vancouver and shot the jellyfish in the aquarium in Stanley Park. I’m not sure when I decided to combine them but that grew out of a fascination with the visual structures of these different things: the buildings as revolving Ferris wheels of claustrophobia and the jellyfish floating through them, beautiful in their way, except that most of their guts are trailing along in tendrils behind them. I combined very toxic aspects of life on this planet: surveillance and imprisonment on one hand, and this lethally parasitic organism that’s reducing huge quadrants of the ocean biosphere to the texture of snot. I made the film as beautiful as possible, because beauty is quite often lethal.

Q

The White Review

— The narration of I Can Give You Anything but Love has an almost voyeuristic quality. It’s as if you’re as interested in withholding as you are in telling.

A

Gary Indiana

— I’m often interested in seeing how much I can remove from a story and still be able to tell it. A couple of years ago, I wrote and directed a playscript based on the Grand Guignol production of Octave Mirbeau’s novel The Torture Garden. It’s about this evil English whore, who lives in Shanghai and visits the prisons for the pleasure of watching violent tortures. Then she meets this French lieutenant aboard a ship, and gets him to desert, then proceeds to dominate him as his mistress. Later she takes him to the torture gardens where she has an orgasm. It’s not a very good book, but reading the Grand Guignol script, I realised that the play was almost exclusively about this woman’s cunt, and the way various men attempted to possess it. Not her, just her cunt. I took the script and crossed out all the language relating to colonialism – because that was implicit anyway – and just substituted words referring to her vagina, male and female genitals, and various sexual acts. I reduced the language as much as I could, down to something almost incomprehensible. I just told the actors, ‘Imagine that all the words are there, but that your voice is a piece of magnetic tape that’s been arbitrarily cut up.’ It sounded like everyone was having a stroke. It’s strange, because five or ten minutes into the play, you forget what the words mean. Everyone was saying things like ‘cum’, ‘suck’ or ‘dong’, but the words ceased to mean anything. People were just listening to these weird phonetics. That’s not what I want to do with my writing, but it was an interesting experiment.

 

With the memoir, I simply took the attitude that I had no obligation to share everything about my life with some imaginary reader. This was no simple realisation, it took me a while to overcome the idea that I had to be in a literary confessional. I wanted only to be entertaining and brisk and thoughtful without oversimplifying anything. As far as withholding goes, I think that could only sound like an accusation in an era when people habitually spill their guts about everything, whether it’s of any interest or not. Writing is as much about withholding as it is about telling. Believe me, you do not want a whole generation of Knausgaards.

Q

The White Review

— The way you structure I Can Give You Anything but Love relates to your early novels, like Horse Crazy or Gone Tomorrow, which mirror episodes in your own life. You compose the memoir as though it were a novel, creating a narrative that the genre might not allow.

A

Gary Indiana

— It’s strange to me when someone states that a novel I’ve written mirrors my own life. Absolutely no one besides myself, in most instances, is in a position to say whether this is true or not. Quite often, it isn’t, at least to the extent people claim. A person’s life isn’t a story. It just isn’t. One of the main reasons I structured the book the way I did is because life doesn’t make any narrative sense. Maybe it does after you die, but while you’re alive, it really doesn’t conform to narrative logic. It’s not that I’m squeamish about sharing. I just didn’t see any consistent form to my existence. I felt that I had to provide it with one, even if it meant imposing some kind of strict chronological form. But that’s not what ended up happening; I found that doggedly following things in chronological order made no sense either. I made decisions based on aesthetic considerations. Was I really going to include the dreary months when I lived in Silver Lake with those horrible people – who might be interesting characters for a novel, but not for the story I wanted to tell? Or describe the seven boyfriends I had in succession in LA, instead of just condensing all that into the single, hot exterminator from the Valley, who was, after all, real? Dramatise my first trip to Cuba for no good reason? The years I spent in Boston? My whole life is not of interest, not in any blow-by-blow recounting of it, and neither is anyone else’s. I wanted to refine it, and focus on things that meant something, or could mean something by writing about them. Ergo, we never featured the words ‘a memoir’ in the book’s title; I wasn’t interested in documentary reality per se, and sometimes dispensed with it entirely to keep the book focused on the themes I had decided to explore.

Q

The White Review

— In I Can Give You Anything But Love you discussed being assaulted, twice. You write about the first instance early in the book, and you later tell Ferd that it wasn’t as traumatic an experience as he might have believed it to be.

A

Gary Indiana

— I still don’t know whether it affects you more, or affects you less when something like that happens to you when you’re already on the edge, in a vulnerable state. The Hell’s Angel who raped me held a knife to my throat, so I was more present for that until I passed out. But in the hospital, while the male nurse was raping me, I was already in a dissociative state, and I just left my body. I floated up to the ceiling. I looked down, and I could see it happening, but it didn’t feel like it was happening to me. But I honestly don’t know. Years later I read Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, which is partly a mimicry of sub-acute schizophrenia, and it’s the closest description I’ve found of the state I was in when I was raped by the nurse. The Freudian model is that you repress these things and thus they dictate your behaviour in a sort of Fu Manchu, subliminal way, without your knowing. But those stupid teenagers who hog-tied me and left me on a floating raft – another traumatic event in the book – I remembered that. I didn’t ever suppress it. It wasn’t a buried memory. What I’ve always wondered is: if you don’t repress traumatic memories, if you remember things very clearly, does that make them more traumatic than things you repress, or less?

 

It’s pretty clear from the book that I disassociate sex with somebody from loving someone as a person. In my own life, I’ve usually found it impossible to continue a sexual relationship with someone I’ve come to love and care about – although this has actually been a lot blurrier than the way I’ve represented it in the book. I don’t think it has to do with being raped. It’s probably the result of many things: the period in which I came of age, when homosexuality was still largely unspoken and unspeakable. It was mainly confined to bar ghettos in cities, and only ‘liberated’ by events like Stonewall in the sense that everybody suddenly felt free to fuck anybody they fancied in a gay bar without quite the same mutual revulsion.

 

I have a friend in Cuba. We’re not sexually involved with each other, but we were. And for a time it developed into something like a marriage, and more recently settle into something less involving. I don’t know. I mean, we’re all very conditioned. Especially now, with gay marriage, people condition themselves into certain bourgeois expectations: how you live with another person, how you can be with another person, how exclusive that has to be, how circumscribed it has to be. People put all these rules on relationships. Intellectually, I just find that all to be asphyxiating.

Q

The White Review

— Do you think that most people are preconditioned to feel jealousy?

A

Gary Indiana

— I think we’re deluged with narratives in which jealousy is mandatory for people in relationships. I was watching TV last night, and at least five shows were dramas about people in relationships sleeping with other people, getting found out, etc. It’s everything; it conditions you. It’s funny – at various periods in various cultures, there has been an understanding that sex is a rather frivolous activity, and isn’t the be-all, end-all of human relations, or the common ground between two people who are already bonded in a very strong way. As long as people are nice with each other, I don’t see why it makes a difference whether people are in a relationship or not. Because you see where it all takes people. We have this set-up of eight billion people, going on ten, at which point the earth becomes unliveable. So why should society support the ideology of endless growth and unlimited human reproduction? I mean, it’s good to be with someone to help pay the mortgage, but the rest of it is either meaningless or pointlessly oppressive. It’s artificial. It’s all just consumerism; people call consumerism love. Jealousy is real enough, but not everybody has to feel it all the time, unless they’re brainwashed.

 

I love the people close to me, intensely. But I know that being in love is a delusional fixation. You do things when you’re in love that you could never do otherwise, but they’re not necessarily good things. It’s a kind of mania, and when I was younger I had it a lot. It never brought me anything good. You can’t see people clearly when you’re in love with them. You can’t. I mean, it is good for some things. Francesco Clemente and I talked about this once. He said, ‘When you’re in love, the economy goes out the window.’ This is true. If you’re worried about money, falling in love will cure that – but only by making you dangerously indifferent to your actual problems. You don’t think so much about money when you’re in love, because you can only think about getting the loved one to love you back.

Q

The White Review

— Do these desires manifest in your work?

A

Gary Indiana

Horse Crazy is all about an erotic obsession, carried on to the point of absurdity. It’s a good subject for a novel. But I’m not the obsessive kind of artist that has the same menu of fixations in every book, if that’s what you mean. In most of my books sexual or romantic desire is dealt with in a fairly derisory or satirical way. With visual work one usually pictures subjects that reflect some kind of desire, though it’s usually a diffuse sort of longing for an erotics of life, rather than specifically sexual desires. In another sense, it’s a question of editing: Why write the same novel twenty times? Why picture the same thing over and over? Do people have to think an artist is obsessed with something to take them seriously? I don’t even understand why people think they must always have something in the works.

Q

The White Review

— Maybe it’s what keeps some people going.

A

Gary Indiana

— Well, if that’s keeping some people going, maybe there is something fundamentally wrong with their lives. In fact, I’m sure of it. Mind you, there’s no such thing as a normal artist, we all just perform our pathologies in different ways. Typically, an obsessive writer writes the same novel every time, performs the same ritualised treatment of the same basic material, sometimes the result is good, sometimes it’s terrible. I’m not that kind of writer.

Q

The White Review

— Do you really identify as a writer or an artist?

A

Gary Indiana

— After quite a few horrible experiences with the publishing industry, I no longer felt it was worth my time to engage with it on a regular basis. I had always done other things too, with photography, film, whatever. I’d avoided showing my visual work for many years because if you do more than one thing in the US, people don’t know what to do with that, they don’t know how to label you. And if you’re comfortable doing nothing when you have nothing to say, that’s regarded as something very strange, also. I don’t identify with the image of the writer or the artist as a person tortured by an urgent need to express something. It’s actually quite arbitrary whether you express something or not.

Q

The White Review

— When you do express something, is the satisfaction artificial?
A

Gary Indiana

— No, the process of making something is very gratifying. Actually, making something that takes as long as a book runs a gamut of emotional states, all very involving. Even in the immediate aftermath, when something goes out in the world, sometimes, if it gets a positive reception, or any reception at all, that can be satisfying in a different way. But I know very few artists, and very few writers, who don’t go into a depressive tailspin after they’ve worked on something a long time and put it out into the world. If work itself has to be torture and the only pay off is how the public reacts, I’d rather not do anything.

 

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Michael Barron has written for Harpers, BOMB Magazine, VICE and Pitchfork. He lives in Brooklyn.




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