Chris Habib is one of the few artists we know who deserves to be filed under “interdisciplinary.” The history of his wonderfully subversive creations are too long to list, so we enocurage you to visit his universe, Visitor to better understand the complexity of his mission. His latest project, a book entitled PLAGIARIST, pushes the boundaries of social media to new stratospheres, drawing together the global narrative of Twitter with Aesop’s fables to create this vastly interesting anthropological experiment. You’ll never Tweet the same way again.
Jauretsi: Give us the “elevator pitch” for the book. What is it about? How was it created?
Chris Habib: My elevator pitch is pretty well rehearsed at this point …
PLAGIARIST is a piece of conceptual sculpture portable enough to be toted around in a purse and studied on a train. It’s not a cut-up. It’s not poetry.
It’s an exhaustive presentation of chiseled research. It’s an anthropological snapshot of a society completely disconnected by constant connectivity. It’s wisdom milked from a world where the soliloquy is king and everybody has an audience of at least one spambot.
It’s a critique of social media written on the blank side of a love letter to it. It’s a meditation on morality and focus in an age where prurience, greed and distraction are celebrated as the only games in town.
PLAGIARIST is a window to the creative process. Every chapter, an illustration of social reverse engineering: cleptostruction, search list, source fable–the populist common (Twitter), personal assimilation (search list), the historic archetype (traditional fable). It’s a backward map of wisdom’s trickle-down.
This book seems like the ultimate culmination of themes in past works – messing with text, the usage of language, and your fondness for collages – all put in a blender. When did you have your “aha” moment to make PLAGIARIST?
I love language. Languages, words, dialects–they carry a lot of magic. I’m an awful speaker – even conversationally – if i’m not writing, I cannot effectively communicate. My mouth and brain operate on completely independent frequencies, so I have a long history of rarely communicating what I think or mean – unless I’m writing. It’s socially problematic, so I’m relatively antisocial. For a lot of people, the inverse is true; they’re brilliant social speakers, but their hands can’t convey their thoughts as effectively as their mouths do.
When I first started using Twitter, I was charmed by the breadth and beauty of misused language it presented. Having always been shy and self-conscious about speaking and misusing words, it was liberating to see how pervasive broken language has become in unedited culture. I wanted to celebrate word breakers and the words they’d broken by folding them into a project. I wanted the project to be entirely text-driven since I do so much visual work.
I initially wrote a novel using a process several shades off from the one I arrived at in PLAGIARIST. It was a disaster. The premise was that I would begin the novel with only the hope of a sentence. I typed my hopeful first sentence directly into Twitter’s search field and left its reality to chance. I settled for a result that the search algorithm felt was structurally similar, but was, in fact, totally alien to my hope. I then had to imagine a new second sentence to follow the first with, again settling for an alien search result. I wrote an entire book like that. It was so jarring and so devoid of any commitment to narrative that I couldn’t see anyone enjoying it. No one ever saw it.
I re-read a bunch of automatic writing and cut-ups. I realized that they were hardly as purely improvisational as what I had tried to do with my novel. Those works, as chancy as they’re celebrated as being, leave very little to absolute chance. They’re exquisite compositions.
I re-watched a documentary on Jacques Derrida. In it, he’s quoted speaking on improvisation. He explains why improvisation is impossible. The quote appears in the preface to PLAGIARIST. Hearing it again in the wake of my failed attempt at tucking a novel under my belt, was my ‘a-ha’ moment. It was the moment when I realized that to make something anyone else might enjoy, I would have to work on a rigorous grid. I could get as abstract as the work demanded that I get; I could make an absurd collage of abused and misused, incongruous language–but that freedom needed to float atop identifiable anchors.
The Derrida quote gave me the perspective I needed to re-frame my concept and invent PLAGIARIST.
This is your 8th artist book. Each book is concept driven and created from deep within your mind. Is this your first sort of interactive dialogue that has yielded a body of work?
I’m often a little uncomfortable with the interactivity behind PLAGIARIST because of how exploitative it is. The book is a voyeuristic work. Each chapter begins with a “cleptostructed” fable in which I’ve very literally plagiarized the tweets of complete strangers. No consensual transaction or mutual collaboration marks any part of PLAGIARIST. It challenges a pervasive preoccupation with claiming every burp and hiccup as intellectual property.
To gather the tweets that became PLAGIARIST, I searched Twitter for the words, phrases and sentences I had hoped to incorporate into my cleptostructions. I found reasonable analogues of those texts. I stole and feathered the analogues into improvised adaptations of 30 of Aesop’s fables. The book is essentially just a sexy OCD research project, organizing sequences of tiny hypermodern texts to breathe contemporary life into dusty archetypes. That exchange is the primary dialogue PLAGIARIST is concerned with–a conversation between modes of story telling.
At its core, Twitter is a massively hypertextual global narrative. It’s a story defined by a collective user base 140 characters at a time. The tail of that story constantly burns off, leaving a very immediate, very present script from which an alien observer could readily perform the past couple weeks of human life on Earth.
Aesop’s fables provide a similar blueprint for describing human life, but those stories remain largely fantastic. As translators adhere to a traditions of fantasy and anthropomorphism, even new renditions of fables commonly ignore the details of modernity. In doing so, they lack a voice that today’s distracted culture can relate to. PLAGIARIST addresses that deficiency by weaving the narratives of Twitter and Aesop together. In that sense, PLAGIARIST is an interactive dialogue, but it’s not my first.
Most of what I make explores something ubiquitous from my environment, responds to it, and then reacts to the responses. I made a zine called M.D., F.A.C.S. a year or two ago. I prowled the Upper East Side of NYC looking for women with horrible plastic surgery. Having lived up there most of my life, bad plastic surgery is something I’ve long been fascinated by. M.D., F.A.C.S. was my way of engaging it in conversation.
As I encountered appropriate plastic surgery specimens, I would jot descriptive notes down in a book of coat-check tickets. I then immediately drew horribly cartoonish caricatures from memory. Based on a drawing and associated notes, I generated a haiku for each woman whose face had been archived. I did dozens of those, selected a few and called the collection M.D., F.A.C.S.. That’s an interactive dialogue in some ways similar to what I’ve done with PLAGIARIST.
Twitter seems to be the primary thread in PLAGIARIST. Are you mocking or glorifying the social network?
PLAGIARIST celebrates Twitter. It celebrates those who contribute to “The Commons”. Nothing about PLAGIARIST is derisive or rooted in malice. The book is an objective, organized archive of information.
That PLAGIARIST’s archive is structured unconventionally – listing information neither chronologically, nor numerically, nor alphabetically, but instead, fabulistically –presents unusual content in an irreverent way, but the information is the information. It’s a sincere presentation.
When we submit things to The Commons, we do so acknowledging the risk that those contributions might resurface in any number of unpredictable contexts. By participating in Web 2.0 modalities, we nurture an ever expanding mine of information. As new genres of data-mining emerge, analytics continue to sift, sort, package and appropriate the fragments of digital-self that we have interred within each of the databases to which we have subscribed.
You described Twitter as a misunderstood instrument. What did you mean by that?
Users who interact with Twitter generally accept the platform as a form of public instant messaging. Whether socially planning with friends, flirting or propagating gossip, news, protest and observation, Twitter encourages users to think aloud. It invites them to subscribe to the thoughts of others–interfacing with the “fire hose” of global pontification. In that sense, Twitter has become a direct and prescient news aggregator.
Neither of those personalities strike me as Twitter’s core identity, though. Behind its superficial curtain of friendly and effortless, instant connectivity is another level of Twitter – a boots-on-the-ground reflection of everything important to society right now – globally. The increasingly powerful and arguably iconic “hashtag” makes trends immediately verifiable as concatenated lists of similarly tagged tweets – a marketer’s wet dream; a publicist’s nightmare. The hashtag has overthrown governments and exposed corporate corruption; it has propelled mediocre artists to superstardom. But, even the hashtag is not Twitter.
Twitter, very pragmatically, is just a database. The interesting thing about Twitter is how its users have collectively decided to feed and mine it. By participating in Twitter as we have commonly agreed to, we’ve legitimated it as the closest thing we have to a universal mind-map. In it, a user can, with a little creativity, watch the planet dream in a ticker of endlessly refreshing text.
That’s where PLAGIARIST’s social media critique exists – deploying the “artist book” as a form of exploratory drilling. Though the 30 chapters collected between its covers each provide commentary on the collective consciousness, it’s more the fact that PLAGIARIST successfully mined Twitter to completely impractical ends that comments on Twitter’s vast potential.
Neither Twitter nor any other platform available to the digital Commons deserves any sort of conformity of interaction from its users. These tools are whatever each of us says they should be. We define all of this media. We make the rules and none of us need agree upon any of them.
Want more. Imagine deeper. These tools are not magic; they’re databases. They’re nothing without the meaning we assign to them.
In an ocean of vapid Twitter voices, your project was a search for the literary analog spirit of free jazz. How did you find your audience, and get them motivated to respond to this project?
PLAGIARIST didn’t demand any sort of participation from anyone during its construction. The project saw an ocean of voice sitting idly in Twitter’s databases and decided to non-consensually perform fables with it. There are a set of rules established in PLAGIARIST’s preface. Those rules were the armature on which I built the cleptostructions contained in each chapter.
The rules speak to engaging with Twitter’s search engine and resolving meaning from superficially meaningless search results. PLAGIARIST’s game was a way to elevate discarded thoughts into wisdom. The only thing the process demanded any sort of response from was Twitter’s search engine.
The free jazz metaphor would be that Twitter led the PLAGIARIST performance while I played along in awe beside it – responding with quizzical trepidation to every note it blew.
From this projects inception to its completion, what would you say is the biggest conclusion or revelation you have arrived to regarding Twitter? What about people online?
My biggest revelation about Twitter was realizing that it’s only a database. I realized that so many of the things that keep us connected and amused today are just databases.
Two of my favorite contemporary children’s books are Antoinette Portis’ NOT A BOX and NOT A STICK. They’re these incredibly simple books that illustrate some of the different things children imagine boxes and sticks to be. My love of those books predates my involvement with Twitter, but my adoration for both the books and Twitter is rooted in the same place.
I celebrate things that stimulate the imagination. Anything that converts us into willful suckers – anything we suspend disbelief for or elevate to a pedestal of genius or magic deserves celebrity. That something so mundane as a text-driven database has become addictive is revolutionary. It means that we still have the imagination to see the race car potential in a cardboard box. It means that simplicity still carries weight with us. There’s a cynical flip-side here, though; our assignment of so much value to a database illustrates just how gullible we are, because a database is, after all, just a box.
People online want to feel that they’re a part of what are often incredibly self-selected communities. They want to be followed and friended, liked and retweeted – by people just like them, or by those who they aspire to be seen as. In these self-selected communities the value of one’s thoughts is reflected by following-to-follower ratios. Our online selves are defined by quantifiable markers far less debatable than wealth or age. The numbers are what they are and people lose sleep over them. I’ll admit to being a little disheartened by the narcissism that platforms like Twitter encourage.
You seem to have lots of creative projects constantly on your plate. Is there one you were most attached to emotionally in 2011?
PLAGIARIST was easily the project I was most emotionally invested in during 2011. It was a wonderfully therapeutic adventure.
Tell us about your ongoing rug collection? What is the latest imagery you are gracing floors with these days?
I’ve designed carpets on and off since 1997. For a number of years, I worked with very geometric, symmetrical designs and pop colorways. I’ve always worked with New Zealand wool and have always manufactured in the USA.
A couple of years ago, I made a shaped carpet in the form of a self immolating Korean farmer who had protested the impact of the KORUS Free Trade Agreement on small Korean farms. That project opened me up to the power of unconventional imagery, message and form in floor coverings.
Last year I made some collages from what I had convinced myself were images of Eastern European sex slaves. I excised the legs and feet from a set of these photos and generated collages rich with a sexualized sense of motion, liberation and escape. Morbidly, I had also generated a stack of legless women whom I had convinced myself were sex slaves.
Imaginary as it may have been, the metaphor there was depressing. It made the collages, dynamic and free, much more powerful to me. I wanted them to become inspirational objects.
Initially I had the collages reproduced as an edition of screen prints. The prints are beautiful, but they neither infected nor transformed homes in the way I had hoped. I wanted children to play on these things. I wanted the images to determine where furniture fell and to dictate what color people painted their walls.
I drafted the collages up as massive, full scale color maps for a set of carpets. The process took me forever. I developed a flesh tone, a greyscale and a rainbow colorway for each of the three designs. I’ve just finished the project. The carpets are some of the most insane pieces ever to come out of VISITOR. They’ll be available in 2012.
I’m presently working with the manufactured carpets as environmental collage elements. The results are stunning. The project is called SHOO.
What are you most excited about for 2012?
I have a lot on my plate for 2012. I’m working on the patent application for a project I’ve been developing for over ten years. It’s a completely unique invention. I may finally be making a feature length experimental concert film of and with one of my favorite director/musicians and longtime collaborators. The SHOO carpets will make their way out into the world. I’ll start chipping away at a highly conceptual novel that eclipses the complexity of PLAGIARIST.
The first printing of PLAGIARIST is presented as a 296 page signed & numbered, cloth bound, foil stamped, hardcover edition of 500 books. It is initially available exclusively from Printed Matter and www.VisitorDesign.com. Suggested retail is $35.
Originally Written and Published for Standard Culture