Sarah Butler: An Interview

Tobias Carroll

Walking into Sarah Butler’s Official Transcript (at Brooklyn’s Reverse Art Space through 6/30), one sees works of art where familiar elements frequently associated with writing and language bend towards the unfamiliar. Handwriting shifts into forms almost sculptural; long, rapturous essays become surreal compositions, the same phrases recurring in dreamlike formations.

Through a series of emails, I spoke with Butler about the works contained in Official Transcript, her forthcoming book Art Writing, and the ways in which her artwork overlaps with literature.


Photo Credit: James Ewing

Tobias Carroll: What were some of your considerations as you selected work for Official Transcript, your exhibit at Reverse Art Space?


Sarah Butler: The works at Reverse haven’t been shown before. …one set of manuscripts called Letters from Nowhere was exhibited at Regina Rex Art Gallery in 2011, but only in excerpt (as Silence). Beginning with the orignal 2009 collection of writings we selected works on paper that would trace my transition from studies in the social sciences and design history, to my central focus now as an artist. Excepting a new book project created for Blonde Art Books in LA this summer, and of course the performances and collaborative, Official Transcript doesn’t include my most recent projects.


TC: Several of the works featured in Official Transcript feature automatic writing. You’ve also given talks and written about art; do you ever find elements of the automatic writing that can be re-purposed for more formal ends?


SB: If by formal you mean practical or applied then, yes, possibly. It’s true that automatic writing can serve as a preparatory exercise clearing distraction and focusing the mind for other kinds of writing say, an academic essay or review article. But we could discuss the formal aspects of writing also in the aesthetic sense —it’s more this ambiguity between concepts and materials in/forming these projects. Automatic writing in that way is really the “end” of my work (and not the means). Meaning: I’m no longer very interested in pursuing modes of writing outside of art writing. It’s the intensities between let’s say, medium and message—a thrashed book and powerful idea—that are more important. This seems implicit in a lot of new text based art work—it has to do with the really weird paradoxes we’re experiencing between the intimacy of distanced connections; the enduring effects of hyper media. I think this is in many ways similar to how “ephemera” is among the oldest and potentially most influential of human artifacts and technologies.


TC: One of the series of chronologically-arranged cards on one wall of Official Transcript ended in late October 2012, just before the city was struck by Sandy. Was that an intentional nod to the storm’s impact on the city?


SB: The cards you mention are collectively titled cloud test, they record my daily practice of learning to write with my left hand backwards. I wrote one card each day from October 19, 2011 to October 19, 2012. While I haven’t self-consciously considered Sandy as an influence, references to current events echo throughout my work in really indirect ways. For example there is a story about a woman whose body—all but her ear—is dissolved by raindrops tinking into teacups from her leaking roof. There are lots of passages on rain in fact so, the storm certainly does have a presence. Water is something I think a lot about as a common denominator for human rights discussions. There’s a project called water sample that I’d like to expand.


TC: Can you tell me more about water sample— both what the project was and how you’d like to expand it?


SB: water sample was my response to a call from AGWF at Interstate Projects, for an exhibition on residency status for artists in the United States. I was then waiting for my green card in what, as they write, is a “brash and tiresome bureaucratic gloom of quotidian preoccupation.”  It’s interesting what makes the difference between one side of a river and another—I grew up in Leamington Ontario, about one hour south of Detroit. It was an exciting call to me also because I was working on a chapter for Nationalism and Architecture—politics and aesthetics, architecture history and theory. This was proving to be very ironic because there is an aversion to discussion of nationalism in the US, a sort of defensiveness. Art and design theory here clings to cosmopolitanism, as if urban centers really are the center. Dr. Seuss has the best description with Horton Hears a Who. In Canada I think identity politics are treated with humor most successfully. But there’s also a palpable defensiveness, protective of those differences. Maybe it’s a certain ambiguity. …Meanwhile living in Brooklyn introduces much more salient category complexes. And it is true we’re entangled more and more in global flows. Anyway. The STATUS! display was a wine glass with “Canada, The United States and Mexico” written backwards around the head of a beer poured in at the opening. It looks very different today. The piece I’d like to do now is a decorative arts display with bodies of water etched into glassware. Could be a lovely party.


TC: What first led you to explore handwriting as an artistic medium?


Photo Credit: James Ewing

SB: I first attempted to quit drawing for Formal Culture, my 2007 artist’s ethnography—a reconstructive approach to social inquiry and cultural critique in the wake of postmodernism. It was a tongue-in-cheek look at the university’s dependency on written documentation. All about the idea of auto-ethnography connected to New Wave and other reflexive approaches to film. Do you know Naked Lunch? This is another tack entirely—the Cronenberg film, much better I think, than the book—but another embodiment of the style, those first shifts in the direction of text. Ultimately writing must always be very dear to artists.


TC: Do you often draw inspiration from film—whether New Wave or something harder to classify like Cronenberg’s filmography?


SB: Well, it’s been less and less about film but I am interested in reading as a time-based medium. I don’t know if that’s inspiration per se, but a drive to record, to find meaning in the meaningless. It’s, like, a job. I’ve been following notions on the social agency of objects, the difficulty of identifying such a phenomena in things really intangible like language (70s and 80s media theory) our emails here (90s through contemporary posthumanism and digital humanities). The slippage across Times and Impact can be really very apparent when you consider them, but more, subconscious in the day to day.

I’m honestly much less inspired than I am attempting to find responsibility… to address, to express, to imagine/invite my own communities and places. Previously this may have been a move counter to dominant or ideal images and voices, this gets fuzzy when the scripts and positions are generated by for example social media; user. generated. content. There’s a tendency to expect constant stimulation — maybe due to the layering signals, alarms and messages competing for our attentions in commercial environments, maybe because reality itself is so long, so stretched out, so void of metrics that we are naturally inclined to love shock. Ultimately it’s a lot of work just to be where you are. My projects are designed to facilitate that, to clarify the strangeness of really any mode of thinking, moving in the world.

TC: What can you tell me about your book Art Writing? Does this have anything to do with the Jacques Lacan/Henry Miller talk you gave at Blonde Art Books last month?


Photo Credit: Sarah Butler

SB: Art Writing is connected to “The Intrasubjective Reality” insofar as the Lacan/ Miller text was presented at the book’s launch. It (the book) was my response to an invitation from Blonde Art Books for their inaugural Bushwick Open Studios book fair. This was incredibly exciting because I think the scene here in Bushwick has been really focused on traditional media: painting, sculpture and to a degree performance. It’s been great to see more works on paper, experimental and new media forms in the neighborhood and to be a part of that. A really warm, welcoming vibe. It might also be important to note that Art Writing is my first real serial art book publication. Apart from a chap book I did for a series of artists’ talks at Reverse last spring, my books are unique or created in very small editions.


TC: When one accesses Writing Program,  (Official Transcript online, via public google document), the first page indicates that, after the closure of Official Transcript, the electronic version will be “recycled” and a limited edition physical copy created. How important to you is the give-and-take between digital and physical formats of the same text? Is this something you plan to explore more in the future?


SB: Absolutely, this problem of categorical differences has been super intriguing. The whole thing has been this awesome experiment.

These moments are important to notice because while they don’t really align, yet, they’re the same thing.

…to be clear, it isn’t at all the same text. First there are just plain cuts and rewrites; there isn’t any real order but everything seems to be out of it, fragmented, fractured. Anyway, in very different ways according to very different landscapes.

Then of course it’s just a different time, everything comes with different pre/senses: the context of the original writing being part of a quiet, solitary studio practice and its attendant book-type monologues, now past, while the transcriptions are currently available on the web. You go from the infinite now of sitting there being totally in your head and the limited historical moment of its being past, to the same infinite now of sitting there sort of beside yourself, with this memory; potentially available to transmission but also passersby at the gallery, the equally but perhaps less apparently limited historicity, geography of that.

Photo Credit: Sarah Butler

All of which brings me back to durations of the ephemeral, depths of the superficial. Prelude to the opening I did a 24-hour reading of the complete manuscript. There wasn’t anything to see or demonstrate the action. Just, you know, silently reading. It was the first time in a long time that the task at hand didn’t need any compression for the duration allowed. I mean, lately I find myself writing in 2 and 3 hour sips, what used to be 4 and 6 hour sessions. It was revelatory knowing that the thing would be done at a specific time, didn’t matter how fast or slow I read. Within that (and I was completely hallucinating by the end of it), but within that it became really clear that the faster I read, the faster the time went, like the relationship between space and time accelerates with movement. Indeed in that difficult period around 4:30am it was helpful to race my eyeballs over the texts! Otherwise, the repetitions and redundancies of the longhand version flow/ed according to really specific formal constraints, so it may be more easily mistaken as a thing done. While the ongoing typos, editorial moves and shifts in pacing you see in the live doc happen in any approach to writing, the ongoing version for obvious reasons still feels very alive, more like an action, a performance, process. Maybe the soft loose shuffling of the over-sized pages with their traces of real time can be better compared to the forthcoming print version of the Transcript, although the lineage is in that sense actually much more direct (from cursive to digital to print without stopping, including the virtual as a thing which exists).

What’s most difficult then is to point to the formal attributes of the public document, the place of the cursor, guests’ avatars… I guess the synecdoche-al rationale then is what gets entered is majority of the time destined for print, which in turn is itself standardized, “invisible”. …trying to grab onto these things that in just a few years may be as apparent as the choice of landscape versus portrait layout of an 8×10″ page.

TC: On Anthology involved the same interview re-created from memory by its two participants, yourself and Nicholas Knight. Do you see a connection between the ways memory can shape phrases and words and the way that handwriting can enhance or degrade under certain conditions?

SB: Absolutely there’s a strong, generative relationship between writing and conceptualization that both accentuates and distorts history. Memory shapes language. Language, memory.


Sarah Butleris a Brooklyn based artist whose work has been shown in group exhibitions at The Do Right Hall, in Marfa, Texas; Regina Rex Art Gallery in Queens, and Interstate Projects in Brooklyn. Her forthcoming projects include Art Writing (2013), an artist’s book for launch by Blonde Art Books at Schema Projects in Brooklyn, New York, available also at Art Metropole, Toronto, Ontario. A lecture performance on her collection of street photographs will be at Glasshouse on July 9th at 4:00pm. This event is curated by Chloe Bass and Esther Neff. You can also find Sarah in August with The Order of the Third Bird out at Mildred’s Lane.

Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles: Review of Books, Joyland, The Paris Review Daily, Metazen, and The Fanzine.