Ben Fama: First of all I want to congratulate you on Before, on both the conceptualization and and implementation of this idea. It’s a moving experience to read it. Can you tell me how you decided to collect these images? Was there one “before” pic that just set it all going?
Abraham Adams: Thank you, Ben. I am not exactly sure where this idea came because I let all of my ideas gestate for years before executing them. Something I do remember is that it started in a conversation about Chinese food. A chef was explaining to me the Maoist-era practice of the “remember bitterness” meal, in which people were forced to consume unpalatable things such as uncooked ingredients and garbage, as a commemoration of how bad things were before, under capitalism. At some point it occurred to me that this was a performance whose static equivalent was the before-and-after idiom of tacky advertising. I know you are interested in the fantasy world of that sort of media, and it strikes me that before-and-afters are a particularly breathless way of depicting improvement, a sort of fantasy with its architecture exposed, or maybe just the bare structure of promises without the fantasy. In any case, among these various theatricalizations of a purportedly transcended stage of capitalism (for Mao, the end; for us, a time when it was not as good), it occurred to me I might like to suspend myself in the space in which I actually live. I was taken with the idea of clipping a structure of disharmony-harmony; in that sense the work’s medium is the conventions of reading (which is also the medium, so to speak, of a performance series I did called Séances, and some other stuff). The book itself is basically artless. The image order was alphabetical by file name.
BF: That’s interesting that you consider the book artless, and about the order; it seems very nihilistic. I do think there is art to this book, maybe that’s because the force of imagination wants to build a narrative across the flow of images and also around each image, the inflection of the imaginary “after” interjecting meaning back into the “before.” There’s a lot of dynamism in that suspended space. Can you tell me where you sourced these images from?
AA: The images came first from the advertising in Us Weekly, where I was working to support myself as the book came into being—these are mostly sexist ads of women in bathing suits (I can’t remember if it’s their bodies or hair that are supposed to undergo changes.) After that I moved to boxes of hair dye, sometimes purchasing them just for access to the image. With some lucky exceptions in books of landscape surveying and a few other things, the rest is appropriated internet trash (“poor images”): photos people have posted on Instagram of their living rooms before and after redecoration; of renovated dolls; testimonial documents from plastic surgeons. Sorry to everyone about those, I know they are gross.
I made the “nihilistic” move of a random image order, which feels more like fatalism to me, after I realized the art of this book is where you find it: in the reader. I had started composing the order, applying the kind of exhaustive rationales I apply to formal writing, then realized two things: I was having an unusually subjective / polyvalent experience of sequence, and, if others are like me, they probably won’t even read the book linearly.
BF: I can accept that fatalism, though speaking of it, the cover of the book bears the sentence: “THE APOCALYPSE FORETOLD IN MYTH HAS ALREADY HAPPENED IN REALITY.” This is another dark fatalism, a time at play, another “already.” I traced this sentence back to a book from last year called With Dogs at the Edge of Life, which I haven’t read, though realize now I must. How do you elide the contents of the book with this sentence?
AA: The whole sentence in Dayan’s original is: “From the dog’s-eye, view, then, the apocalypse foretold in myth has already happened in reality.” This reminds me of a philosophy tutor I had in middle school, who told me that Naked Lunch was, to Burroughs, a “literal description of the world.” Equally, a time I once asked a geologist, What was the biggest disaster in history? And he responded, “‘Disaster’ is an anthropomorphic term.” In a simple-minded way, this book Before denatures an anthropomorphic temporality, externalizes its device while removing the contents of that device. I don’t mean “progress”—in fact I find it bizarre that most progressives dogmatically refuse that idea. What this book acts on, I guess, is the idea that at certain times something has happened while at other times nothing has happened; that when one thing happens it is good or bad. The whole subjective caricature of phenomena.
I like the epigraph also because people are preoccupied with the apocalypse as a fantasy, perhaps because of its real-time legibility. They invest it with eventhood. Or temporal hypochondria, maybe, a fantasy of controlling our means of relating to eternity via human institutions—wanting to fend off cognizance that those institutions are themselves impermanent. In one reading, the apocalypse fantasy is actually about survival. What if I could just carry a rifle, look for intruders through a telescope, ration my Neosporin. Maybe that is why some people are so bitter about that Lars von Trier movie, because nobody survives.
But come to think, yes, we are privy to an eschatological idea of eventhood. The image of the apocalypse echoes backwards to consolidate our idea that anything has ever happened, such as a haircut. Our feeling that a haircut exists, our feeling that a shirt exists; or, especially, the childhood memory of a shirt almost possessed. This emptying of time into a Cartesian nothingness, like that scene in The Matrix where they’re in the white template, only to refill time with qualities—proprietary qualities (or in the movie, racks of machine guns): the meaning-feeling, so viscerally felt by children, of a possession, such as Pogs. I FELT Pogs. In this way, I occasionally wonder (as I’m sure someone else has often and rigorously) if our means of relating to art are truly inseparable from capitalism—I know that sounds a little stupid and one could just point to the Frankfurt School, but what I mean specifically is this: that we feel in objects, they behave as time batteries for us, so that an artwork becomes a spell that something—what?—casts on us, only different from the “spell” cast by a commodity (or someone with an Aleister Crowley book or whatever) in that the artwork perhaps possesses an imperative toward absolute nuance. Who is casting this spell? It may be that our ability to feel and think with objects is the commodity fetish itself, a type of temporal compression. That if there is an after-capital, visual artworks might cease to mean or be legible in it, that they might convey us or come with us toward ways of seeing that leave them behind. This may well be equally true of poetry, and that words may only act as time batteries for us as well when they are charged on the grid of institutions (the apparent freshness of the space of reading being its own Cartesian fantasy). I’m not predicting that one day there will be no art, but after the so-called apocalypse, what kind of art do we imagine we’d be making?
The legible apocalypse embodies the fantasy that preoccupied Blanchot for his whole career: the fantasy of a die-able death, one that I can experience. This proprietary image of an event with an end, an eschatological eventhood that teaches us to think about given events—this way of seeing time that requires a Cartesian background space we “fill” with events, like that scene in Paradise Lost when Satan builds a “heaven of hell.” Instead, I want to think about what Dogen, the thirteenth-century founder of Soto Zen, wrote: “Each individual and each object in this whole Universe should be glimpsed as individual moments in Time.” At some point I had all these slogans about time in my head, and one of them was “Time is homeless.” I could see I desire a substrate for space-time (or existence-time, as Dogen wrote)—the western world has an erotic relationship with Cartesian space. It is obscurely frightening to think that time has no substrate.
The epigraph is, finally, simply about the present. It could be said, for example, that the apocalypse effectively began in Africa in the fifteenth century with the transatlantic slave trade, then matured or climaxed there at the end of the nineteenth century with the modernized brokering of European colonies. In this sense, the apocalypse fantasy (with all those movies) is very important for the white American middle-class subject, because it manufactures a democratic idea of destruction that vindicates all history.
On the other hand there is a problem here also. Re: the liberal refusal of the idea of progress, the rationale of that refusal relies on a zero-sum idea of history that requires the oppressed to be the minus of the empire’s plus in the imaginary, and while this might be straightforwardly true in a given situation, I’m not sure people of my demographic grasp how problematic the calculus becomes when speaking of the world at large. On what authority does a westerner claim that no progress exists in Africa or the Middle East? (Why speak in calculus at all?) Truly zero-sum ideas of progress (e.g., “there is no such thing as progress”) require such claims, and some thinkers, such as Dayan in certain moments, even extend them to the white American poor. But the white working class in particular is just an attenuated zone of capital for the imaginary of the white liberal middle class, a laboratory for its authority. It’s what allows people like Joe Scanlon to claim that even after someone apparently leaves a class position, it remains “in the bones.” What capitalist doesn’t think this? It’s the American dream, a racialization of class that can be used to justify any transgression.
But to stay with this reading of the apocalypse for a moment despite its problems, I think that something like Zika is frightening to Americans because of its radical liberalism. Whether or not we say the End per se has come to the colonized in one place or another, the threat of a plague is of an absolute deregulation in the way we’re used to the apocalypse being distributed.
We are accustomed to a bureaucratic distribution of the End, to benefitting from the pact with a devil who has come to cash us in. A plague or Donald Trump is a figure of absolute deregulation.
BF: To close this interview, I want to ask, you said your ideas gestate for years before you actualize them, can you tell me what you are working on now?
AA: I’m finishing work on a book that Sternberg Press is publishing next year, called Nothing in MoMA, Nothing in the Met, Nothing in the Whitney, Nothing in the Guggenheim, which is a board book (the kind with rigid pages for toddlers) of photos of areas in those museums where there is no art, language, or people. David Joselit is writing an introduction to that, and my friend the artist Andrew Ross is designing it. I started taking pictures in museums maybe twelve years ago, so I’m not sure how long this concept has been sitting. Beyond that, I am waiting for five other eggs to hatch, books I’m not rushing but waiting for, like in the scene in Jurassic Park with the tiny velociraptor, if you remember: “Come on, then.”
Ben Fama's latest book of poems, Fantasy, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse. He is the co-founder of the press Wonder and lives in New York. Recent work can be read in Joyland.