Jacob Wren is a writer and performance artist whose work often theorizes about the state of contemporary art. He is the co-artistic director of the interdisciplinary art group PME-ART, the members of which sometimes “believe in being naive on purpose.” He has been blogging for ten years at A Radical Cut in the Texture of Reality and his book, Polyamorous Love Song, was listed as one of The Globe and Mail’s top 100 books of 2014. In the final essay of his newest book, a hybrid of non- and short-fiction called If our wealth is criminal then let’s live with the criminal joy of pirates (BookThug, 2015), Wren writes: “Like many of us, I am in crisis (with one possible difference being that I have a compulsion to announce my sense of crisis as often as possible). I am in crisis about art and also about everything else.”
SAD Mag’s Shannon Tien interviewed Wren to discuss this crisis of artistic ambition, naïve activism, hope, cynicism, and animism, among other meaty ideas.
Shannon Tien: What are you doing in Calgary right now?
Jacob Wren: I’m co-leading a project organized by the New Gallery that’s an art writing residency. There’s me and Jean Randolph co-leading it. We have a few participants that we’re working with for one month in person and then another four months long distance around questions of art writing.
ST: Cool. So let’s start the official interview. In your essay “Like a Priest Who Has Lost Faith” from your most recent book, you write about artworks having their own agency to get us to think in ways we might not have previously considered. Are there any artworks that have made you feel this way in particular?
JW: There probably are. We were talking the other day about this well-known artwork, the name of which I don’t know, by General Idea, where they took the famous “LOVE” graphic and replaced it with the word “AIDS” and that image, I think it was called “The Image Virus”, and that work traveled an enormous degree on its own through various media and became one of the many iconic images in the AIDS movement. I think that’s an example of a work that traveled a great deal on its own.
Maybe that’s a very literal idea of an artwork having agency. I could also use a cliché historical example: the Goethe novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. A young man kills himself for unrequited love, and then there was a rash of suicides in Germany by young romantic men who read this and imitated it, which was not Goethe’s intention.
But I also think there are less literal examples. In a way all artworks that have any impact on us or enter into our lives make us do things that we don’t know are coming from that artwork. Things we might not have done had we not encountered that project. They might change our thinking or actions or raise questions about our lives that we might not have had otherwise. And I feel with these things, there are no guarantees. Like, maybe you did something because of the artwork, but maybe there were a number of factors that influenced how you thought and acted.
ST: And what is the consequence of assigning the agency to the artwork instead of the artist or the viewer?
JW: I mean, there’s multiple agencies acting on any decision or thought or action. There’s never only one factor as to why something happens. So of course the artist has agency, the viewer has agency, the artwork has agency, and when the different agencies come together, maybe something happens? Or maybe nothing happens?
As a writer, one thing that becomes very clear is that people read your work in ways you never intended or never thought of and also that this is a beautiful and positive thing. And that as a writer, trying to control your work’s public reception is a recipe for insanity and also probably a recipe for very mediocre work. Knowing that you’re making something that has a life outside of you and changes in its interaction with different people and different contexts–I think that’s an essential thing for making anything.
ST: Was there a moment in your writing career when you realized this? That the work had a life of its own? Did it change things?
JW: I don’t remember a specific moment, but I feel like it happens all the time in little ways. For me I might be a control freak, but I’m definitely not a control freak in that way. So I’ve never had any problem letting go. I feel like when it’s ready, people can do with it what they will.
ST: What is art writing? Is this how you would describe the genre that your book falls into?
JW: Well, it’s two short stories and an essay. So, it’s a hybrid book that brings together fiction and non-fiction. And I think one of the reasons we wanted to do this was because for me–and Malcolm Sutton who was the editor–we would like there to be more back-and-forth, more fluidity between fiction and nonfiction. And we don’t see a strong boundary between them.
ST: Yeah I like that idea. In your other book, Polyamorous Love Song, I felt like the short stories presented a lot of nonfiction theoretical ideas, kind of.
JW: Yes, I mean, you know, my fiction is always a fiction of ideas, and ideas are often presented in a…well I try to present the ideas in a clear, non-fiction way. And, for me novels are essays and essays are novels. It’s all in the same swirl of writing and thinking and presenting.
ST: I noticed on your blog, A Radical Cut in the Texture of Reality, that you were celebrating your blog’s 10-year anniversary. How does blogging influence your art and writing?
JW: Doing A Radical Cut has an enormously positive effect on my writing in that it’s allowed me to share short paragraphs or short excerpts as I work on them and get some response–put them out there in the world before they’re finished. It’s kept me writing, in a way. Often it could take me four years to write a novel and it’s kind of a secretive, lonely time. Having this way to share little bits and pieces as I go has really given me the energy to continue at many different points.
Also, it goes without saying that we live in the age of the internet. In general, how I’ve shared my work on the internet, mixing things I’ve written with quotes from other people, with songs and videos and having it all mixed together in a kind of giant internet pastiche has very much changed how I see writing and how I see art.
As you probably know, though, this little book was done as a special edition for Author for Indies Day. This was like a desire to have something for independent bookstores similar to Record Store Day–where there’s special editions and special records you can only get on that day–to try and create some excitement about small bookstores in the same way Record Store Day created some excitement around record stores. And I was really unsure that it would work. I was curious. But when I showed up at Type Books at Authors for Indies Day, there was a line up of people wanting to get in to get the special editions. So that gave me a really strange and excited feeling, that people would line up in the morning at an independent bookstore to get these things. I think it gives me a bit of hope.