As a writer, critic, and erstwhile senior editor at Artforum, Lauren O’Neill-Butler has made an art of the interview format, having conducted well over one hundred and fifty over the past thirteen years. Her latest book, Let’s Have a Talk: Conversations with Women on Art and Culture (Karma), collects many of them, in effect putting a disparate group of artists, writers, and thinkers including Adrian Piper, Alex Bag, Sturtevant, Lorraine O’Grady and others into a kind of dialogue with one another. Here the interviewee, O’Neill-Butler talks about the value of public speech, the formidable craft of listening, and how having such conversations is necessary to a feminist practice.
MY FIRST INTERVIEWS were published in punk zines when I was in high school in the ’90s. I think the earliest piece was in Heartattack—which was sort of like Maxiumrocknroll—with some women who had started a feminist group that would meet in the parking lot of this notoriously macho punk club in Tampa, Florida, where I grew up. When I was in college, I started pitching to Bust and Bitch, feminist zines that were, at the time, getting glossier. The oldest interview in the book is one I did with Judy Chicago for Bitch in 2007 to coincide with the opening of The Dinner Party (1979) at the then-new Sackler Center at the Brooklyn Museum. I think I took the interview because I wanted to clarify in my mind why she mattered to me, a third wave feminist. I wanted to know more about where I’d come from.
Public speech distinguishes itself from other kinds of discourse, which is why the interview is such a special format. Hannah Arendt talks for instance about making private thoughts public and how that can persuade someone, change someone’s mind, get them to come to your side, or maybe you join their side. But the thinker who is more central to my understanding of public speech is Simone Weil. She’s more known as a mystic, less as a hard-hitting political thinker. She once said, “Everybody knows that really intimate conversation is only possible between two or three. As soon as there are six or seven, collective language begins to dominate.” And that, to me, is so true. As someone who has conducted and edited interviews and round tables for a long time, it is so clear that in a conversation between two or three people, there is real rigor and intimacy. When there are more people involved, a collective hive-think starts to come in. It’s just a different power dynamic.
The interviews began to signal other ways of doing philosophy, outside of the classroom. I much preferred a meeting of minds at the kitchen table, which is where I always wanted to be while speaking with someone in person. I also loved the primacy of text, the cultivation of the spoken word. Adrian Piper sometimes said to me during our talks, “We’re doing the Platonic dialogues here.” But Plato’s dialogues weren’t really dialogues. It was one person listening to another, with curiosity. Real, unaffected curiosity is a form that we’ve sadly lost. I like the quieting of oneself during an interview that lets the other person talk. I try to sort of decreate myself, or decenter myself a little bit, although that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. There are lots of interviewers who make the interview all about themselves.
When I was the editor of Artforum’s Interviews column, people would ask why we were interviewing mostly women. I would just respond, next question, please. But I did try to do an accounting in that column of what wasn’t happening in the magazine. There were a lot of artists who just weren’t having their say, who weren’t being represented in the magazine, or who didn’t like how they were represented. And historically it was the case that artist’s voices took a backseat to their objects, although it’s less and less like that now.
In the book’s introduction, I mention Gertrude Stein’s idea of the continuous present—a repetition that feels increasingly relentless these days. It was always interesting for me to see how certain words—some international artspeak—would appear and then reappear repeatedly across different interviews. One of my favorite pieces collected in the book is by Donna Haraway, and she starts off saying, “It’s not like I have a vendetta against the word anthropocene. . .” and then goes on to offer up captialocene as the word that should be used instead to define our age. After that interview, I noticed many artists suddenly talking about the anthropocene. It became one of those buzzwords.
I started to ask people the same question recently. I asked Adrian and Howardena Pindell and some others about spiritual armor, and what can we depend on in this time of deluge. Adrian’s response to that question was an amazing sequence of thoughts—“a simple five-point plan distilled from the principles of nonviolent resistance”—that someone on the internet read and then turned into a poster. When I saw that, I thought, Okay, I’ve done my work here.