W a l t e r z A l t e r
p o r t f o l i o

a r t i c l e s

 

Trans Magazine interview- Spring 1988

Justin Lepanto with: Walter Alter

JL Walter, most observers would agree that your artistic career has
drawn its share of heat from the art establishment, and, interestingly,
from the avant garde underground, as well. you've characterized yourself
as a "pariah among pariahs". your iconoclasm is apparent, particularly in
your writings about the role of contemporary art in a technological
society, and perhaps it's that dual role of artist and critic which causes
confusion. you've been rather hard on your contemporaries within the San
Francisco art scene which could be considered strange since that area has
a world wide reputation for its literary and artistic output.

WA yah, you're right, but it's the zone of activity that i'm most familiar
with and i'm not going to hold back just because i might step on some toes.
look at a map, San Francisco is shaped like a toe, you can't move inside the
city limits without stepping on it. my criticisms are valid although very
incorrect from a party line standpoint, and that's what provides most of
the fun- showing artists how to apply their own standards to themselves.
artistically speaking, San Francisco has nothing on the brain but bottled
water at this juncture in history. for a city that was once the "Florence"
of a mini-renaissance that really began the "New Age" shift in American
society, it's offspring exhibit more amnesia about its fundamental
precepts than a modern savings and loan executive. the "psychedelic"
playground is now an aesthetic wrecking yard, a mound of earth inhabited
by phantom limbs. an archaeologist could really get his rake bent trying
to excavate down through the layers of primitivist totems, psychoses
masquerading as genius, mystical debaucheries, chthonic sexual circuses
and excesses of personal and social disintegration carried out as
experiments upon living subjects. but if he could get past the cliches, the
hack ideologies, the amyl nitrate ampules, a great treasure of Promethean
archetypes dealing with truth, beauty, integrity, adventure...all the marble
virtues, could be exhibited as evidence that something of value occurred.

JL your state of irritation, then, could be attributed to what you
perceived to be the unfulfilled promise of that particular era?

WA my state of irritation is best attributed to the auto-erotic ritual
masturbatory strangulation performance that killed a young artist friend
of mine at the San Francisco Art Institute on October 12, 1982. no, they
don't like to talk about it. let me tell you what we got here, kid. we got
more cliques and synods than 13th Century Rome, more artistic bleeders,
runts and hydrocephalics than a Byzantine citadel, and more Buddha faced
bureaucrats than Idi Amin's waiting room.

JL i can see how people might take your message in light of the way you
express it. is the point you are trying to make dealing with an
insufficiency within the artists themselves or the support institutions
which serve the interests of the artists?

WA both. but mainly there is a glut of coaster artists in S.F. with the
intellectual rigor of a cloud of gnats. lounge artists. wino artists. air
artists- a race of schizo-hobbyists. lookit, artists are supposed to be
brain surgeons for a society with multiple sucking head wounds. this is
not a job for cliche-bloated libido junkies who have trouble locating the
plastic end of a screwdriver. there are a few artists who got themselves
somewhere without rubbing butts with the mind consultants at schmooze,
bootlick & voodoo. hopefully they have outgrown the sugar tit infantile
need to goon their brains on Swiss pharmaceuticals. but most are having
themselves off with an act, merely "being there". that is the territory of
the idle rich. it is stylish to lose interest. the "boredom" icon is the
dilettante's last line of defense. anyone who needs to invoke "boredom" as
their platform for a sense of personal grandeur will reduce the sum of
human misery as much as those mad shit-throwing monkeys at the zoo.

JL so...you see the artists not living up to the expectations of the
"scene" they have created, am i reading you correctly?

WA what they have created is a sense of "self" characterized by
occasional signals of independent cognition, yet still connected invisibly
to group approval. the truth is that tribal social structure is regimented,
predictable and stifling. dependency bonding is infantile and anti-
autonomous. it ultimately substitutes collective bureaucratic evasion
for individual responsibility. you always end up with some overt or
covert group-think, apparat-think, collective-think. look at the
work/live space zoning struggle, for crissakes. who do you think almost
torpedoed ten years worth of bureaucratic infighting- the downtown
developers, the realtors association, the chamber of commerce? shit no,
it was a clique of artists blinded by their own exalted vision and
political imperative. i could`t believe it when i finally figured it all out.
you had to be there. i get this call from Suzanna Montana, a Planning
Commissioner who has been an artists' ally in getting the intricate
language for a new occupancy code that allows artists to convert
industrial buildings into work/live studios. she asked me to come to a
meeting at the S.F. Art Commission where there was expected to be some
opposition to the legislation. at the meeting a representative from the
State and Local Grants program wanted to make a minor change in the
language which at that point stated unequivocally that work/live
conversions were to be allowed for arts and arts related tenants only.
this made sense to me since it was the only protection artists had
against chic industrial lifestyle entrepreneurs with lots of money taking
up all the space for their designer sweatshop/consulting businesses.
hell, they could afford both an apartment and a separate work space, just
like any other business. artists had a unique need to be living close to
their work in large, well lit spaces with freight elevators and loading
docks. i mean you do tend to lose inspiration fighting traffic across
town to get to your studio in a bad part of town at a bad time of night.
you get the picture. so this twitch is trying to convince everyone that
such an exclusionary policy would make it impossible for certain
developers of large scale artist loft conversions to get government loans
under the low income housing provisions. i argued that artist
constituency groups had been fighting for nearly a decade to make lofts
legal and affordable. Claire Isaacs, the Art Commission Director, saw
the point and steered the other members to adopt the legislation as
originally written. the matter was then referred to the Planning
Commission for their final approval and at that meeting a couple of new
characters made their appearance- the developer of Project Artaud and
the Sears Building complex, both of them large, well financed
conversions; and a representative of Art House, an arts advocacy and
grant writing organization. they again made the pitch for the language
change, trying to gloss over the fact that government loans for low
income housing required that most of the space be available to low
income families as apartments! there was a bit of turmoil among the
Liberal constituents on the Planning Commission but they were finally
able to separate the issues of low income housing and artists work/live
space and, like the Art Commission, recommended that the Planning
Commission also approve the wording which reserved these conversions
for the use of artists. the final round occurred at the Land Use
Committee of the Board of Supervisors. just before we were to speak, i
was asked into a meeting room where half a dozen men in suits tried to
get me to see the benefits of big warehouses being thriving communities
of creative energy. you had to be there. shit. 10 years of work stalled.
at a subsequent meeting at Project Artaud to break the stalemate, the
plot finally unravelled for everyone to see and it turned out that the
perpetrators behind the developers were knot of Trotskyite conspirators
from the old Goodman Building who had received approval from the Feds
for a half million dollar low income loan. these ideological cadre
hardheads had found themselves sitting on a half a million bucks that
they had to spend or lose, and by a series of feints and deceptions by
omission, were trying to push their agenda through under cover of being a
groundswell of sentiment in favor of large scale building conversions on
the part of San Francisco artists. at that time i lived in a converted
meat packing plant that four of us shared and virtually every other artist
i know of living in an industrial space has less than 5,000 square feet of
of total space. these smaller buildings would all have become prey to
wealthy architects, computer firms, owner-operator businesses of every
description, who felt the compulsion to live out their Architectural
Digest fantasy. by this time i had printed up a hundred or so handouts
with the conspiracy revealed in detail and the "developer vanguard" was
seriously losing credibility. there were an uncomfortable number of
underground Anarcho-hipsters at the meeting in a state of pissed off. we
finally arrived at a just compromise wherein the work/live ordinance
would be exclusionary, artists only, in buildings of six living units or
less, and open for low income loans for the larger warehouse projects.
why those ideologues couldn't have thought of that earlier, i'll never
know. had they been on Jesse Helms' freight train, they couldn't have
created more potential for disintegration within the arts community.
this is what i mean when i say that artists who band together for
defense are playing with unstable areas of the creative personality. we
should band together for offense, creative offence.

JL there have been more than a few battles pitching artists against
mainstream values and institutions. it's a way of life and raises the
question of how this situational defensive posture affects the art that
they do?

WA yes, this is a very important thing to think about. you have to
realize that a defensive mentality is a conservative mentality. look at
the current genres in art, a pile of cliches- Reactionary Neo-Primitivist,
Transcendental Visionary Naif, texture-crazed Post-Modern, political
cadre Agitprop, Nazi sado-bondage, self-mortification performance,
shock art desensitization, funk debris box assemblage, Minimalist
psychic vacuum cleaner. virtually all of it is some form of infantile
sublimation that announces the incapacity to stand alone, be independent
of the forces that form the persona. artists have got to figure out a few
tricks about shaping one's own destiny freed from dictatorship of
nostalgia, myth, tragedy, futility, etc. all these philosophical
predispositions are manipulative sophistries. the '60's started out
constructive but ended up being destructive in many ways and is now
perceived as having been largely a con.

JL how else could it have worked out? it was...an intense period of
experi-mentation. nobody had a blueprint. it's nature was a revolution
against prediction and social forms that had been predictable up to that
point.

WA yes, i agree. there is absolutely no doubt that the '60's were
character- ized by genuine attempts to get social institutions into the
fluid immedi- ate- capable of taking on the shape of human necessity and
justice. i believe that the essential philosophy of that impulse was the
recognition that life is process and not object. the whole art thing with
"happenings" was exactly this recognition of flux. it became the name of
the movement- "Fluxist"...brilliant! but the notion got tangled up by the
camptown Aquarians who brayed on about cycles...about life-flux being
cyclic. nobody questioned this Aquarian orthodoxy, it was so comforting
to know that "what goes 'round, comes 'round". duh. i think that the
metaphysical cult aspects of the '60's did more to insure its eventual
auto-cannibalization than anything else. process is not cyclic, is not
closed, is not entropic. objects, on the other hand, are all these things.
process is really the time container for all object interactions and is
itself propagating in a straight line. straight line time allows object
reality to sort itself out from chaos into harmonics. we humans have
ideals and these ideals are harmonic resonances of time geometry. we
may perceive cycles but we certainly don't conceive in cycles. that is
what separates us from the furry apes, what gives us power to escape the
mechanistic destiny of the Newtonian billiard ball Universe of objects and
biologically programmed robotic instinct. how can you create or discover
in a Universe of cycles? a cycle is a closed loop. any improvement or
progress must be the imposition of straight line action upon the cycle
trap.

JL i'm not sure that's going to reassure a lot of people in these times,
but... ok...i've read some of your stuff and it's evident that you have not
been sitting on the sidelines. your work on the artists' work/live issue,
the Open Studio program and the Youth Arts Festival makes it evident that
your adversarial role is not limited to criticism. you do have a desire to
reconstruct the debris you leave in your wake. do you reconstruct with as
heavy a hand as you deconstruct?

WA you decide. we've got to get out from under the oppression of
cabals with hidden political agendas. this game is suffused with
deception and we artists and performers suffer terribly from it. we are
at an uncomfortable juncture. the Hegelian dialectic of history was a
pragmatist's fable. unless artists can find an intrinsically honest
application for their ideals, we are going to be gone as a causal factor in
human affairs. if the spiritual mumbo jumbo of the East vs. West variety
is not closely examined for its veracity, artists may not be able to
reconcile current events with their ideological frame of reference. the
East is now more technological than the West, and is advancing
technology, at least the crucial area of electronic technology, further
and faster than the West. another contradiction: you try to downplay the
need for technology and industrialization to someone from the Third
World and they will look at you with disbelief and disgust. how much
longer can we continue to operate saddled by political or spiritual
ideologies that are fundamentally inimical to technological progress.
look, just read: Buckminster Fuller's- "Critical Path" and "Ideas and
Integrities" and then decide.

JL could you give us some clues as to what artists will have to do to
avoid your predictions of obsolescence.

WA we desperately need to build a philosophy based upon origination
rather than reaction. that is creative. original thinking is a precious
quantity on this planet and we should develop a method to detect its
existence. so much of the Radical agenda was based upon reactions
against injustices such as the Viet Nam War. political movements of
opposition result in the obvious logic: that without an injustice to
oppose, the movement does not exist. so, existentially, there was more
value to having a problem than solving it. in this regard the Socialists
achieved decadence before the Capitalists, who were, at some level,
inventing new processes and technologies, ie, originating in a forward
direction rather than reacting to an extant situation. artists have got to
come to grips with the power of technology to fulfill spiritual ends. we
have succeeded in reaching a kindling threshold whereby we now have the
knowledge to solve all, repeat, all, problems of material need.
imagination and invention are the signatures of creativity. we have got
an important task assigned to us and we are not going to be able to
fulfill it to anyone's satisfaction as manic-depressives in a perpetual
state of personal train wreck. creation is joy. creation is not phoenix-
like, predicated upon proir destruction. that's a Nazi vision. improved
situations are intrinsically attainable by harmonic means. it is the
artist's task to explain the nature of that harmony and create the
potential for resonance with the ideal within the soul of the audience.
with human well-being as the yardstick, efficiency becomes
revolutionary. love is not all you need. you needs smarts.

JL i get what you are saying, but i'm not sure that it is such the
departure you make it seem from the kind of creativity most artists are
involved with. are there any artists who in modern times exemplify this
approach?

WA the most vital and positive of 20th century art occurred within the
DADA movement. for some reason the art faculties and historic surveys
tend to treat the DADAists like a comic relief eddy to the ponderous main
currents. the DADAists were seminal because they did two things. the
first thing they did was to create art within a framework of analysis.
they created art which dissected reality to see if different reassemlages
might not offer an improvement. they absolutely broke the boundaries of
the print medium, creating what is even today modern typesetting and
layout. since print was the primary mass communication medium in the
twenties, this willingness to work within media of mass communication
with the aim of effecting them is a lesson that was shortsightedly lost
within the '60's anti-TV rant. the second thing they did was to not loose
their humor, in fact, to magnify it as a wellspring of rejuvenation. DADA
was probably the most important art movement since the Florentine
Renaissance. it nourished directly all subsequent art movements which
operated in the objective 3-d world rather than the subjective, symbolic
world. performance, Happenings, art cabaret, syllabic and chance poetry,
noise music, satiric "Commedia Del Arte, Situationism, guerilla theater,
collage, found object, multi- media, mail art networks- all these
"modern" tendencies acquired escape velocity and legitimacy within the
DADA magnetic field. the person of marcel Duchamp is seminal in 20th
Century art, yet he remains a mystery figure, handled with radiation
tongs by the historians. both he and Dali are, in my view, the sources of
illumination for our current artistic era, sources which are at their core
anti decadent,ahem, in spite of appearances in the case of Dali. there is
an error in thought among Romantics that assumes that analysis is not
intuitive or that it somehow short-circuits the emotions. the problem is
that the Romantics turn an unknown into a yardstick. this is impossible!
is intuition rational? it may be exceedingly rational, we really don't
know, do we? there is no reason why analysis and intuition are not
complementary extensions of each other. if we hypothesize that emotion
occurs in the present and extends into the future and intuition occurs in
the future and extends to the present, then we might get a useful
interaction going between these two variants of the same predictive
theme.

JL that sounds uncharacteristically yin and yangish. my contradiction
detectors are in a state of alarm

WA look, you take any section of a line and you have a smaller line with
two ends. are the ends of the segment opposites? word-symbols are
truncations of existence which can appear to be in opposition. if you
observe only the eddies of a stream you'll end up with an erroneous
concept of the river system. artists have repressed certain capacities to
entertain the obvious, and, interestingly, have behaved much like the
specialists with a blinkered field of view that they so abhor. in any event,
it cannot be denied that politically if not psychologically, most artists
feel themselves to be separated from society at large. although this
separation might confer an ability to observe from a distance, in a neutral
manner, the separation instead creates an elitist revetment from which to
make judgements divorced from the ability to exert effective control. i
am not denying that the consumerist pig-out reflects a vile debasement of
our sense of value. but you'd expect a social group that is based upon
"seeing differences" to be able to differentiate between the production
and consumption of frivolous commodities, and the production and
consumption of intelligent, necessary commodities. Capitalist production
must not be attacked for its ability to produce wealth. the ability to
produce is creative and, as such, should attract the active and positive
interest of every artist. the failure of Capitalist production is that it has
been held in the grip of the Feudalist, Oligarchical, Latifundist, ground
rent speculator Aristocracy against which it originally rebelled. anyhow,
it looks like the Capitalists have achieved hegemony on the planet. it is
futile to oppose Capitalism in principle. but it is not futile to understand
its revolutionary anti-Feudalist roots and emphasize those tendencies
within it which are universally productive. besides, there are too many
disturbing contradictions in leftist rhetoric which have escaped a
rigorous, policy changing discussion. the whole issue of the Radical Left's
tolerance of drugs is indecipherable to me. from an economic standpoint,
drug dollars swell Fascist coffers; from a social standpoint, drugs tear
into the ghetto Proletariat like a runaway chainsaw. from a spiritual
standpoint, any enslavement of the human soul is disgusting. this failure
of analysis by the cadre elite occurred for one reason only- it was
assumed that any acceleration of the presumed ultimate and inescapable
decay of Capitalism was a revolutionary act of the correct line. let me
say it once: dogma is dog shit. this Leftist complicity with the forces of
corruption no longer has the ineluctable force of history behind it.

JL so, ok...what's next, i know there's a practical side to your work,
assuming there's even an ounce of truth to any of this...

WA why don't we inform the life-philosophy approach of the
environmentalists with true Anarchy, the kind without mind fuck
fanaticism, neurotic nostalgia, victim worship, secret society bonding
con games, and invisible ideology cops. priority one, after the settling
out of the political situation, is to get humanity fed. once we raise the
living standard of the Third World, we can tackle the population problem.
the industrial West can entertain birth control because our standard of
living allows us choice. in areas where survival is marginal, nature
impels the individual to reproduce. education will not work against
instinct in situations for which the instinct evolved. we face the peril
of rationalizing draconian nonvoluntary sterilization measures and/or
letting disease run rampant in the deluded belief that our medicine is
prepared for any onslaught. both these strategems are Fascist.
technology transfer and industrial parity is the only creative, ethical
choice. environmentalists are going to have to accommodate themselves
to industrialization as a necessity or be accused of racist genocide. if
we get our butts into info-overdrive, and move our brains at least once a
day, we can usher in an age of Renaissance and maintain our problem
solving momentum. but we only stand a chance of playing an important
part in what will most likely come to pass with or without our
involvement if we look to the creators of renaissances for clues about
method.

JL in the past you have mentioned "renaissance" as an idea that might
allow for a sense of continuity for artists. but for someone
prognosticating about future trends, this sound a bit retrograde. i know a
lot of artists who associate that period with Machiavellian intrigues and
a repressive Church-dominated aesthetic.

WA yah, right...Renaissance, a bunch of artists got together and decided
to change history, one of them was Charlton Heston. we really have a
childish, cartoon view of most of history. the central philosophical
tenet that gave impetus to the Italian Renaissance was that the well-
being of humanity is the divine proportion by which all things are
measured. how many renaissances can you name besides the Italian one?
there was Golden Age Greece, early Islam, the Carolingian renaissance,
the Gothic Renaissance- city building around cathedrals, the Bardic-
14th Century nation building around minstrel-poetics in the vernacular
tongue, the Elizabethan of Shakespeare, Milton and Marlowe, the
Gutenberg which led to the Protestant shattering of Vatican hegemony,
the Copernican of 17th Century observational science, the French
Enlightenment of classless Universal Suffrage, the Industrial leading to
Republican representational Democracies, the recent Electric which put a
110 vold outlet in every wall and the present Electronic Renaissance
which should be nicknamed the TV Renaissance. (laughs) in every case
these renaissances were preceded by some form of technological
watershed which forced greater access to economic or governmental
justice by greater numbers of citizens. unfortunately, these
renaissances were followed by periods of repression where the forces of
reaction waged merciless warfare against the just application of
technology, which they knew in their bones would eventually relieve
them of their dictatorial burdens. it's high time to rehabilitate Leonardo
DaVinci. he's been bad rapped to point of character assassination.
DaVinci is commonly accused of dedicating his genius to the invention of
weapons. now you sit down with a volume of all his known drawings and
count them up. if i have to make the point any clearer, we're dealing
with an impaired learning ability. also you have to recognize that within
the historic context of warring city states, one acted to defend one's
city. DaVinci is also considered wicked because he invented machines.
if you think that machines are intrinsically evil, then live your life
without them starting right now. if you feel that human genius is
intrinsically evil, then you are a fucking Storm Trooper goon. we have
very little sense of the power that artists wielded in those days as one
of the few virtuous communication channels between the common folk
and the Crown. remember that artists had their patrons sitting for hours
at end, a privileged audience for which lesser courtiers would commit
murder. artists were powerful in those days because they had skills that
were indispensable to affairs of state. artists had more freedom of
movement among circles of diplomatic power than any portfolio'd
ministry. in the great salons of the Enlightenment, it would have been
unthinkable to proceed without the addition of contemporary musicians,
composers, poets, novelists, painters...you get the picture.

JL you see science and technology as underwriting human progress and
as a background upon which artists would do well to intermediate more
frequently. many would argue that science has done nothing more than
mess up the planet. but you still haven't made clear how artists can be
more effective than PR men or science popularizers like Carl Sagan.

WA ok. knowledge has a shape. whatever the quantity or mix, it has a
shape. it's called culture. it results in velocity, direction and artifacts.
that is to say, it is a propellant to beings. the thing that artists do that
others don't is they give shape to the sum total of their culture's
knowledge at a given epoch of civilization. their artifacts, if properly
deciphered, should be able to give more clues about the mental evolution
of that society than any other artifact. artists create time capsules. art
is the Universe's way of measuring its progress towards self-
realization. many of the key inventions in those renaissances were
communication devices increasing the detail resolution of old-to-new
culture info transfer and broadening the base of potential recipients.
information is a crucial substance. one of the greatest inventions of the
last generation was the US Freedom of Information Act. the reason
artists lost their important positions near to centers of power is
because they were tricked into intellectual exile. exile means you don't
communicate. creation for an audience-of-one is narcissism. go to a
contemporary art museum, you'll se a lot of it there. you'll see a lot of
work whose point of departure is the subjective. the point of arrival
then also becomes the subjective. if the artist's subjective universe
manifests mostly pain and injury, the spectator is going to get injured by
the art. worse than presenting injury for public inspection, is the
creation of ambivalence in the mind of the viewer who will persist in
trying every lexicological contortion possible to derive meaning from an
inherently ambivalent communication. the communication of
ambivalence is a being-destroyer's stratagem. ambivalence is not: "here
is the evidence, you decide", it is: "here is something or nothing, you can't
decide". indecision is the henbane of existence. re-decision is
liberating. being free means that you can go back and be re-decisive as
often as you like. this is what the Church of the Subgenius means by
"slack". acting decisively in correctable increments seems to be a
difficult thing for many humans. it's really like letting go a bit to get a
better grip. something like that.

JL i'm not so sure the mystery is evaporating. you make so many
assumptions that could be contested that i don't know where to begin.

WA begin anywhere, it's a total field of event relations. we'll
eventually get where you itch.

JL there has been a long pause since the last recognizable innovation
in art, i'd say actually from the period of the Happenings at which time it
was made clear that traditional exhibition formats began to function
less. are galleries obsolete?

WA the search for new forms up to now has been essentially a search
for an identity, an extension of the persona, a therapy ward acting-out of
unresolved personal conflicts. those artists suffering from role model
insufficiency are caught up in a hopeless attempt to bring back elements
of the past for re-integration as stability factors. the creation of
Primitivist totems and ritual as art, as well as spiritualist Visionary
and Naif forms are symptomatic of artists being trapped to one degree or
another in the past. those art forms which are centered upon sado-
masochism, life-style eccentricities, self-referential or groupie-
referential themes, are essentially reactions of helplessness before an
overwhelmingly complex and presumed threatening world of social
events. the issues, there, are about control in the present. finally- art
that relies heavily upon message content, warnings of danger or hard-
line political doctrines are likely to spring from a sense of foreboding
about the future. the fact is that artists move into new areas of
expression at a very cautious pace and in small numbers. it is
incomprehensible to me, for example, that filmmaking faculties at
teaching institutions still outnumber video faculties almost across the
board, or did until very recently. video has met tremendous
intransigence in the art world from both artists and exhibitors. TV
media didn't make a breakthrough into the fine arts until the industry
was capable of creating cheap, consumer oriented products, whereupon
its legitimacy was reluctantly recognized. if you are my age, you easily
recall the day the Bob Dylan swapped his acoustic guitar for an electric
one. his fans howled- sell out! yet his music tripled in power and range
without losing its purity. in any event, artists did nothing to establish
fluency between technology and the public, but rode in on the public's
self generated fluency on account of consumer product access. David
Hockney "discovers" polaroid mosaics after the medium has been out
there for 20 years. artists don't have a clue. shit. this one's for Rickie.
that's it. over and out.

JL thank you, i suppose.

WA stay sane, Justine- baby needs you that way.

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