Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I’m struggling to keep up with the various blog posts and listserv commentaries on Flarf distributed throughout the internet; my brain fries each time I open the Lucipo listserv archive to find yet another five-page response to Dan Hoy’s Jacket essay. But I trudge on, mainly because I love literary fisticuffs, the discussion is generally intelligent and well-argued, and the humor is pitched a bit higher than Defamer. Lime Tree had a clarifying post several days ago, further enumerating the various ways in which the word “flarf” is used: “it belongs to the zeitgeist, which will do with it as it wills.” And today Silliman extends Gary Sullivan’s initial definition of Flarf by raising several questions about its perceived siblings (Kenneth Goldsmith, Alan Sondheim, Brian Kim Stephans, et al) though they are not really questions so much as already-apparent qualities: “systematization, the use of computers, games, any sort of gimmickry”; “the anti-aesthetic, the deliberately awful, the troubling”; “appropriation of non-literary materials”; and “the role of acquaintance and friendship” in the creation of the work.

And so the genealogy of Flarf and its analogues continues to be (contentiously) mapped. Whether one wants to take that history class or not is a matter of opinion; people will place David Bromige and Jackson Mac Low into the family tree, or Kathy Acker and Tristan Tzara, or Alan Sondheim and the Baroness Freytag-Loringhoven, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t help us understand why this particular anti-aesthetic (and others like it) is rearing its self-proclaimed “awful” head now, among many different groups across various media, and why so many have such a strong reaction to it (and it is most often a reaction). But I think the Flarfists do themselves a disservice when they theorize their own work. Flarf doesn't need a defense because Flarf is indefensible. More troubling to me is the mention of Jeff Koons as a visual arts equivalent to Flarf. I see the connection, and I’ve thought of Koons (and Takashi Murakami and Gregory Crewdson and Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin) in relation to Flarf before too, but I don’t think it’s exactly right. While Koons is certainly corrosive, cute, and cloying, and though he does appropriate (not non-literary but) non-artistic materials and subjects to create his art, he strikes me as too much the individualist, uninterested in community, and not manic or offensive enough to be an appropriate analogue. Another blogger (I forget who it was, but it was in one of his posts at some point over the past year) compared Flarf to the Royal Art Lodge collective, which I think is equally mistaken. Marcel Dzama, Neil Farber, and the other members of the Royal Art Lodge are just not deliberately awful enough. There’s a sentimentality and romantic earnestness to their work that is missing from Flarf (not to say that Flarf isn’t earnest or sentimental in its own way – but that difference is precisely something that should be explored further). And the Royal Art Lodge – well, they’re just not overwhelmingly corrosive or out-of-control. They’re sweet, but not sickly sweet, and not un-P.C.

Closer to Flarf is the work of the comics/art/video/performance collective Paper Rad. Visually, Paper Rad is truly nauseating. Seeing one of their gallery shows or performances is like eating too much Halloween candy after strolling down to the internet bar to down a hamburger milkshake. They make Jeff Koons look highbrow (which he is, in his way – that is, Koons has what people in grad school call, apparently with a straight face, a “critical apparatus”; I’ve found very little in the way of artists statements from the members of Paper Rad; in fact, expecting Paper Rad to have a statement of purpose would be to miss their point). Paper Rad generally uses day-glo and pastel colors, embarrassing and nostalgic but warped versions of cartoon characters from their 80s childhoods (Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, Cabbage Patch and Garbage Pail Kids, My Little Pony, Gumby, Garfield, Bart Simpson, Teddy Ruxpin), outdated computer graphics and fonts, perverted narratives, and offensive, fucked-up photography; they mix it all up in a big witch’s cauldron and put it on the wall, or in a book, or on the computer screen. In their animated video, Gumby: Xmaz World View, Gumby takes his horse Pokey to get a hipster haircut for Christmas, but ends up hallucinating at the Farmers Market after getting high on spray paint while trying to graffiti the F-word on a wall. In I Heart Computers, a half-man/half-woman peacebird prays to its crystals after a notebook’s worth of teenage jargon flashes onscreen. Paper Rad also has somewhat of an engagement with poetry. There’s actually a poetry section in their new book, Paper Rad, B.J. And Da Dogs. One untitled poem reads:

WHATS harder than getting
a snowsuit on a drunk toddler?
What if the toddler was petting
a cat, and you thought the cat
was just part of the toddler

I’m on my 7th wife
What am I doing wrong,
maybe its
the gong.
Or the bed bong

I;m going to be honest
how do you make refried beans,
is it just mashed potatoes?

What is a haiku?
Beginning to see the see-thru

When I think of candy
I think of being young
at a nudist beach, having the
power to ‘freeze’ time
and sample all the candy.

Is dancing like
I wouldn’t know
For I am the one
who dreams of

This is not so extremely awful by itself, but in the context of the book, where page after page is crude n’ colorful – not to mention the page the poem is printed on, which is pink with some sort of old computer font, or in an art gallery, where the sensory experience is immersive and no speck of white space is left on the walls – the candy-coated awfulness is unbearable. (You can read more poems, handwritten even, and in this sense closer to LRSN's work, on their website). The aesthetics of Paper Rad and Flarf may be worth exploring since they seem on first glance so similar (use of computers/games, the aesthetic of awfulness, appropriation of “wrong” materials, and community interaction) – certainly they have quite distinct social histories, most likely even more divergent than Flarf and the “uncreative writing” of Kenny Goldsmith. Lately I’ve had a little devil whispering in one of my ears. He tells me to take the time to write an essay on these trends in the literary and visual arts. But I have an angel at the other ear. He’s singing that old Beatles song, “…whisper words of wisdom, let it be”. Or maybe it’s Bubble Puppy singing, “In the mist of sassafras, many things will come to pass”.

(More concerning Flarf and its discontents from Joyelle McSweeney)


Anonymous said...

just you have a job?
i mean how do you have time to think/play/ that much and work...+-

Joseph said...

Hello Anonymous.

I can't help but notice that you posted this message at precisely the same moment someone from Porterville, CA visited this website. Maybe you are that person. I grew up in Porterville. Maybe you know me. Maybe you're a member of my family.

I don't think I think/play any more than most people my age. I certainly don't blog as often as most of those people on the blogroll to your right. I work when I'm at work. The only thing I do at work is work. That's 8 hours a day, plus an hour driving to work and an hour driving home from work, for a total of 10 hours committed to work-related activities. I give myself between 6 to 8 hours of sleep per night, which leaves me 6 to 8 hours per day to do whatever I want. That's 30 to 40 hours per week (not counting weekends) to think/play. Think/play for me usually consists of: reading, writing, going to movies and art galleries and readings and other events that go on throughout greater Los Angeles, talking with friends, eating nice meals, watching videos, discovering new things in the city, going to watch bands play their songs, creating and doing crossword puzzles, reading some more, writing a little more, and thinking about creative ways that I can increase my think/play time and decrease my work/work time or somehow make my work/work time and my think/play time indistinguishable from one another before I get too old to think/play anymore.

Thanks for your curious inquiry.

Gary said...

Hi Joseph,

You're probably right & people like me should just keep quiet & watch the circus. (I say that w/out an ounce of sarcasm.)

The Paper Rad connection (or Fort Thunder) is dead on. Ben Jones has long been my favorite living comics artist. I don't like all of the Fort Thunder artists (well, I don't like the guy who did Climbing Out), but I love most of it, and really love the group energy.

It's nowhere near as good as BJ & Da Dogs, but I'm happy to send you a copy of my own comic book, Elsewhere, if you don't have it. Just e-mail me at with your mailing address.


Gary Sullivan

Joseph said...


Thanks for your response. I didn't exactly mean that you guys should sit still while bees gather round your precious child. I think the Flarfist Collective response in Jacket (one of many to come, I assume?) is one of the best responses yet, if only because it's undefensive and is in the spirit of Flarf poetry itself. To be be more specific, when I said "the Flarfists do themselves a disservice when they theorize their own work" I meant that any response that attempts to defend Flarf on, say, multiculturalist, feminist, or political grounds is simply taking the bait offered by Flarf's fiercest and most unhumorous critics; those particular criticisms of Flarf seem misplaced to me; it's like criticizing Doctor Who because the show isn't critical enough of colonialism (which is wrong in any case). A secondary concern is that critics then tend to focus more on the artist statements, comments, blogposts, definitions, and theories rather than the poems. The work itself just gets lost in the discourse.

Anonymous said...


best wishes for a new year for an old soul....may u stay forever young.

Joseph said...

Sorry Anonymous, I didn't mean to be passive aggressive. I wasn't sure who you were and suspected you were someone else. Now I know. So, hey, thanks for the birthday wish.