Collage Culture: The TBTS Interview with Essayist and Author Mandy Kahn
And then one day I looked around and said, I’m living in a Rauschenberg poster, and the song that’s playing is a Rauschenberg too, and the book of poems on my bedside table, found poems made from scraps of extant material, is one also — and that’s when I started to feel unsettled.
– Mandy Kahn, “Living in the Mess”
Missoula, Montana, is full of many types of people that you won’t find in most other places. However, while there in the early 2000s, I didn’t find too many folks with the keen wit, humor, and critical capacity to both appreciate and critique the larger popular culture. Perhaps it was the relative rural nature of the state, or perhaps it had more to do with the somewhat bare bones existence of lives lived without much room for frills. Whatever the case, that lack changed when I crossed paths with Mandy Kahn, a Los Angeles transplant to Missoula. In Mandy, I instantly knew I had found a kindred spirit. You don’t meet people every day who, in conversation, are comfortable switching between Georgia O’Keefe, Joan Didion, the Kinks, Mulholland Drive, and Rauschenberg, all while scavenging Goodwill and Dollar Stores for the odd gem. But that was/is Mandy.
I was therefore not surprised when she told me that she had a book coming out this winter. Collage Culture: Examining the 21st Century’s Identity Crisis is a collection of two essays, one by Mandy (“Living in the Mess”) and one by Aaron Rose (“The Death of Subculture”), a veteran force and bright light in the New York and L.A. art scenes who is perhaps most widely known for his documentary Beautiful Losers. Sandwiched between the two essays are 16 collages by Brian Roettinger, an L.A.-based graphic designer. The images both compliment and comment on the ideas within the essays – and, most, interestingly, were designed not by Roettinger himself, but by a computer application. Roettinger and programmer/artist Chandler McWilliams devised a series of rules, fed combinations of them to a computer program, which then generated the images.
Taken together, Collage Culture raises a number of questions about art, intention, authorship, originality, and authenticity, and, specifically, what these concepts mean in today’s culture. But I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. Though leaning heavily on the art world, this text is ultimately more concerned about the culture at large, about trying to understand just where we are and why. Perhaps what I love most about this book is that it doesn’t necessarily want you to agree with it. Rather, it wants to raise the questions, then leave the door open for you to step in and continue the conversation.
During the past few months, as Mandy, Aaron, and Brian have toured Europe and the East and West coasts in support of the book, Mandy and I have been conducting an interview via email, exploring in a bit greater depth this idea of collage culture and what it means. What follows is that interview.
How did the promo tours go? What has the response been so far?
The tour went exceedingly well, and I say that having never been on this sort of tour before and therefore having nothing to compare it to. So, in a vacuum: it went swimmingly!
Tell me about the European part of the tour. What has surprised you? What have been the primary differences between the European and American audiences?
The European leg of the tour was absolutely amazing and absolutely surreal. It’s worthwhile to note that my co-conspirators on this project—my co-writer Aaron Rose and our graphic designer Brian Roettinger—have both put out loads of books and have lived very much in public for a long time, so I’m sure their experiences were different than mine. For me, it was showing up at events in other countries and then watching the room fill up and thinking, Holy cow, who are these people? But Aaron and Brian have fans, and their fans are engaged, interested, creative people, so doing events for those fans and meeting those fans was an incredible privilege. It should be noted, that said, that these folks are opinionated, and their opinions aren’t always dovetailed with ours. Aaron got more dissent than I did, I think, because he took a stronger stance—I don’t think I got any dissent, actually. I look forward to getting some, though. Aaron said recently that about eighty percent of the folks he met on tour just cornered him to say how much they agreed with his thesis, and then another twenty percent cornered him to share an opposing argument, which he always welcomes. Our whole plan with the book, really, was to foster conversation, so we welcome dissent. But mostly, we welcome conversation—dissent or otherwise.
I can’t say anything surprised me because I had no frame of reference—if you expect nothing in particular, it’s hard to be surprised. And the distinction I can make is not between European audiences and American audiences, but between English-speaking audiences and English-as-a-second-language audiences, because that was the big difference for me. In Germany and France, it was about the ideas generally, and less about the language and the music of the language. And that’s exciting too, because so much of the book for me was about form—not just about the idea, but about how to best express the idea—about the shape the idea took in the language, and the sound of the words and where the stressed beats fell—which is unusual for nonfiction, but there you have it. So when you’re dealing with audiences who are maybe translating what you’re saying in their heads to glean its meaning, it’s a different thing—it’s all about the ideas. And that was pretty great, in its own way—to distil out the emphasis on language and concentrate on ideas. So that’s how the events started—with France and Germany, and with this emphasis on the idea, and on the design of the book, but not on the intricacies of the language. And then the British and American events were also about the language as it relates to the ideas—so it was nice to have that extra dimension to discuss.
Tell us a little about the genesis of this book. How did you and Aaron hook up? How did you all connect with Brian? How did you all come to this idea of collage culture and, more specifically, how did you all go from concept to essay to book?
The project started the night that Aaron and I met, actually. We were having a late-night snack at the Brite Spot in Echo Park—just down the street from where I live—with a handful of mutual friends, and we were sitting across from each other, and I launched into one of my diatribes about contemporary culture—in this case, a diatribe I’d been thinking about and working out for some time, an idea that I’d started calling collage culture. And not long after that—a few weeks, maybe a month—Aaron emailed me out of the blue and said, I’ve been thinking a lot about the collage culture idea you were talking about—any interest in maybe doing a book on that together? So we had some meetings to hash out the details and in one such meeting, I brought a bunch of books to use as inspiration, and Aaron kept pulling books from his shelves, and Aaron ended up pulling a first-edition of a Kenneth Patchen novel called Sleepers Awake that has a bit of an unusual design—some pages are word pictures and some are all text. And we both loved that. And we thought, let’s do that. Because one thing we were sure of—this was very important to both of us from the beginning—was that we wanted the book to feel extremely approachable, extremely accessible, and to have a form that supported that. So we thought, when we saw those word pictures—something like that would make this book seem really unintimidating, really non-academic, and that was something that we wanted. We didn’t want it to seem like the sort of book that you get assigned in class but don’t actually want to read. We wanted it to feel personal, even while it was researched and considered. So. Once we’d decided we wanted that sort of design, Brian was the first choice, of course—he was Aaron’s suggestion—and Aaron wrote to him and I just sort of crossed my fingers and bit my fingernails until we’d heard back. Aaron and Brian were already friends, but I’d never met Brian—I’d only admired his work from afar. I knew about the show he’d done at the Hope gallery, which was all word pictures, except with letters that didn’t form words—I hadn’t been there but I’d been invited and had seen photos and I knew he was doing that sort of work. So: when Brian agreed, Aaron and I put together a proposal, and that was it: we got offers, and we chose JRP. And then from there, there was still the matter of actually writing the essays. My process involved a lot of research—far more than what ended up in the book—and more interviews than ended up in the book, too. And mine was finished many months before Aaron’s was. Aaron was having a bit of—not writer’s block, but something, so I’d bring him fancy coffee and cards to try to jumpstart his process. Then the essays went to Brian—mine first—and the layout began, which involved a bit of letting go on my part, but mostly a lot of excitement. He did not choose to emphasize the same phrases I would have chosen, which is where the letting go came in—but that’s what’s nice about a collaboration. Also, you know, the man’s a genius: you just want to get out of his way and let him work. One thing to note about this project: the publishers, to our great joy, stayed completely out of our way. They changed not a single word and gave basically no direction, which was ideal for us. I edited and copyedited all the text in the book and JRP did not try to run my choices past an outside copyeditor, which I appreciated, since the choices were deliberate. We made a very strong choice to use a full-bleed author photo on the back cover of the book, and they didn’t bat an eyelash. We made that choice because none of us liked the idea of blurbs, and none of us could really stomach asking people to give them to us—nor could we stomach the idea of flipping to the back of the book and seeing some syrupy compliment we’d actually had to ask for. Plus the photos Autumn de Wilde took were just so amazing—highlighting her work seemed much more appealing to us. I brought over some old books as samples—specifically a Barry Hannah hardcover and an old Joan Didion hardcover, both of which had full-bleed black-and-white author’s photos on their back covers instead of blurbs, and we just loved how that looked. So that’s what we did. But yeah—it’s really unusual for a publisher to just completely let you do your thing, and that’s what JRP did. They sent us the logos and the bar code—that’s about it. At the end of the process, Brian and I looked at each other and said, Okay, well, we could pretty much start a press at this point—we pretty much know how to do everything now.
The layout/presentation of the text – especially for your essay – harkened back to the pre-Duchamp Dadaists of the early 20th century. Was this intentional? If so, why?
It wasn’t intentional. The points of reference for us were the Kenneth Patchen novel I mentioned above—Sleepers Awake—and Brian’s word picture artwork, which he’d displayed at the Hope gallery not long before we put together the proposal.
The layout/presentation of the text also seemed to reflect this idea you keep coming back to in your essay about contemporary culture as motion sickness. Were you considering the layout from the beginning, or was the visual component something that was added to the layout at a later date?
The layout choice was really the third decision we made. The first was, these have to be separate essays with two distinct points of view. The second was, these essays have to be subjective and approachable and we don’t want them to feel too pedantic. And the design choice came out of that second decision—it was a way to make the text approachable, and to make it clear to the reader that this wasn’t an academic project—it was something different entirely. I’d gone to the bookstore the week before just to scout things out, and just to get a sense of where a book like this would be placed. And I realized that there really weren’t other books like this—that a book like this could end up in various places, or nowhere. And that made an usual graphic design choice make even more sense, because it became clear that this was really going to be a horse of a different color—and if you’re going to do that, it’s best to just go and do that all the way.
One of the great tensions described in both your and Aaron’s essays was the one between “original” creations and those that are comprised of “borrowed” pieces. As I read your essays, I kept asking myself if there have ever been truly original works. Do you think there have been original works of art (pick any genre)? What, to your mind, constitutes originality?
This is a question we get a lot, and it’s a really good, really valid question. To me, a work is original if it travels through a person—through the machinery of that person’s person—on its way into form. Collaged works include direct quotation, and directly quoted things don’t travel through the person the way an idea does. So here’s the distinction: a work that’s created based on a borrowed idea—a work that was, let’s say, inspired by another work—is for the sake of this argument an original piece because the idea was borrowed, but the final product was created by scratch by the artist based on that idea. In the past, an artist’s work might have inspired other artists to create similar works from scratch. Now an artist is just as likely to photocopy that original work and take a piece of it whole. That’s the difference. It’s that direct quotation that makes a work collaged, and it’s that direct quotation that’s new—not in practice, but new in prevalence. It was once unusual to quote directly—now it’s so common that we forget it used to be a shocking choice.
When thinking about this issue of originality, innovation, and borrowing from the past, I come back to two things: Shakespeare and blues musicians from the 20s and 30s. The stories Shakespeare told were not original – his contemporaries often wrote plays with the same plots and characters. Likewise, if you go back and listen to white and black blues/country musicians from the 20s/30s, you hear many different versions of the same songs. In both cases, it wasn’t the source material that was important or innovative, but how, in Shakespeare’s case, he innovated the language, and in the blues, how individual musicians innovated playing styles. In the case of Girl Talk, is the issue that he’s using other people’s music to create something, or the innovation he brings to making it?
So now we’re talking about degrees. Shakespeare’s retelling of classic stories is to me highly original because he’s taking a germ—a story, a series of plot points—and passing that through his person, and when it emerges, it’s entirely his. A jazz musician playing a standard is an interpretation artist—his art lies in his choices—and though the material is borrowed, he makes it his own. Perhaps, on the scale, that’s less original than what Shakespeare is doing, but not full-blown collage. Girl Talk’s music is all one big direct quotation, so that falls into the category of a high collage—a purely collaged work. That said, I’m not saying that Girl Talk’s work isn’t innovative—it’s just that his innovations are in the work of seeking out, choosing, cutting and pasting, and not in creating from scratch, and that’s worth noting, and examining, as it relates to bigger trends.
What is the role of nostalgia in collage culture?
Oh, it’s huge. Nostalgia has had a huge role to play—in fact, I’d say collage culture is a direct result of two things: prevalence of nostalgia and prevalence of internet access. In what year did everyone get personal computers and DSL at home, so they could really start to spend big swaths of their days mining the ’net? I’d say the year 2000, or thereabouts. And the start of the new millennium also ushered in this incredible and palpable public nostalgia—this love of all things twentieth century. So those two things—this sudden yen for all things past, and this new thing in the house that allowed access to everything you’d suddenly gotten nostalgic for—those two things came together in a crescendo of furiously rooting through relics from the past. So the role of nostalgia cannot be overstated. And probably the changing of millennia contributed to our sudden wave of nostalgia as much as anything.
How does the collage culture you describe here differ from past cultural borrowings? White musicians in the 50s & 60s appropriated black musical styles and fashions. T.S. Eliot appropriated almost everything for the Wasteland. Etc.
Regarding your first example, there are two differences: one, a difference in process. Being inspired by a work, as I’ve mentioned already, and borrowing an idea from that work, and letting that idea percolate in the body and help you create something from scratch still produces something original. Photocopying a thing and cutting it is a different process—a process of collaging. And in your second example: the borrowed lines in the Waste Land are examples of collage—and when Eliot did it, it was shocking.
Both your and Aaron’s essays reminded me of the folk-revival that has been happening and bubbling just under the larger cultural surface for the past 7-10 years. String bands, jug bands, old-time music, freak folk, etc. Part of me can see how this “movement” (for lack of a better world) fits into your frame, and part of me feels like this looking back and adoption of a by-gone era is as much about anxiety and search for authenticity in a world of rapid technological change. How much do you think this larger anxiety plays in the creation and sustaining of a collage culture?
Funny you should bring up freak folk—that’s something that came up in the interview that Aaron, Brian and I did for our box set, mostly because that was very much my scene when it started—and being in that scene, watching it gestate and germinate and grow, was one of the many ways this theory started to take shape for me. That scene is very much inspired by, but all those works—even if they feel derivative—are original works. Those bands write those songs from scratch, based on the sounds of bands from the sixties that they admire. So those aren’t collaged works. They’re notable here because that scene is so nostalgia-laden, and nostalgia, as I mentioned above, is one of the leading factors that came together to create this collage culture. But nostalgia alone isn’t enough—it’s the combination of nostalgia and direct quotation. Freak folk is all nostalgia and no quotation (except, perhaps, in their vintage fashions). And: I love your comment about anxiety and authenticity—I think you’re 100% right on with that. (Interesting, though, that the technology that inspired the anxiety also brought those same folks the barrage of sixties reference clips they based their new folk movement on.) So: I think the anxiety you mention is notable in the way it relates to the nostalgia, primarily. But those who really got taken by that anxiety—that really freaked out over technology—were not lead to make collaged works—they were lead to the Big Sur fest to practice ancient forms, whole and organic and natural forms—the opposite of the disjointed form of collage. So freak folk-ers are a group that felt the nostalgia and went another way.
Finally, how do the examples of current collage that you cite (Girl Talk especially) differ from, say, hip hop, which I think of as the first tangible, contemporary example of wholesale sampling of other materials as re-appropriations for a wholly other purpose?
I don’t see a difference, really—hip hop artists use samples, Girl Talk uses samples—it’s the same process, except that Girl Talk has taken it to an exponential level. What’s changed is the world around the artists. So when sampling was new, it was news, and there was a discussion around it—Is this valid? Is this stealing? It was shocking, it was notable. The world that Girl Talk functions within is so collage-laden that his work fits seamlessly into the fabric of our culture, almost without our noticing—and that’s what’s worth examining.