On Wearing Masks: Jon Leon and Bdydbl in Conversation

Jon Leon and Kathryn Garcia (of bdydbl) at the Chateau Marmont, Jan 2012. Photograph courtesy Jennifer Krasinski

BDYDBL: This is a spread I put together for an issue of Daddy Magazine in 2007 this issue was called “black daddy”, when reading your essay on Lindsay I thought of this image. In your essay, you write that the Lindsay the public knows is more an invention of the media than a reality and your fantasy is that she embody the image of the BAD-ASS. That she step up to it.

And then we think of Sid who actually was a so called BAD-ASS, whereas Lindsay seems something totally different. To you, is Lindsay this generation’s equivalent to a Sid Vicious via the media’s reconstruction of that kind of archetype? The bad boy now a girl? How do you see them differing?

Jon: I think Lohan’s energy is different from the magnificence of Sid’s nihilism. Lohan’s nihilism seems compulsive whereas Sid’s was open, directionless, and exhausting. I think Lindsay wants to get to the other side of her compulsions. I see the beauty in that conflict. It gives her a glow. It adds to the space she takes up. I think we’re watching her construct a personal identity. It may be more narcissistic than nihilistic, this willingness to believe that one needs to be seen forming.

When I think of what it is Lindsay may be becoming I see it as a spectral force, whereas Sid diminished over time. He cannibalized himself. I think Lindsay’s provocation is even more broad. Her complete willingness to delight in her compulsions is real libertinage. She arranges the evidence of her misbehavior with virtuoso craftsmanship.

There is a picture of Elizabeth Taylor visiting Richard Burton’s grave. In the photo she’s carrying three umbrellas in order to completely shield herself from the paparazzi. I feel like Lindsay’s handling of that situation would be the complete opposite. She would want us to see her vulnerability. It seems her crying is a way of protesting a disaffected life. She is hyperreal. I think she acts in a way that implicates others for their non-action. Her reality is more than a media construction. It is an intersubjective experience with the media — reflexive, synergistic, and affective.

Your videos are sexy and communicative. When you start producing a new video are you first thinking about making it sexy, or the message you’d like to convey? I think making sexy videos is really important, do you? Do you think about emptiness when you create? LQDBDY seems to be about emptiness.

BDYDBL: I feel that LQDBDY comes the closest to a certain type of emptiness. I made the piece with the intention using marketing and advertising for the sake of advertising, to “sell” this nebulous idea of another identity – the body double.

On sexiness: I don’t set out with the idea to make a sexy video I feel at the core of my practice, what it stems from, is an excess sexuality. My work is about using this excess sexuality (or desire) productively, meaning creatively, rather than passively (consumption). Desire can be extremely productive. So, to answer your question in a roundabout way, yes I think sexy videos are important.

Jon: I find the idea of advertising for advertising’s sake fascinating. It seems we live in a time where artists become brands. It’s much more clever or subversive to sell nothing, and instead to mimic using mainstream tools. It’s a powerful way of working because it shows how fragile identities are — individual, collective, or corporate. It seems especially difficult to verify a person or a thing. I find the entire world to be quite mysterious and unverifiable which is why I tend to work with surfaces. It feels really bleak to accept that maybe there’s no depth, no truth, nothing authentic. But also really easy to believe. In my own work I’ve tried to showcase a lot of vapidity. It sometimes feels complicated. Because of the presumed synergy between an author and his or her work, an audience might conflate the two. In the end I think the voice in my work is empty, but it is a malady that is present in our world and I wanted to go there. It’s sexy because it appears to propose no consequences.

BDYDBL: I think you and I both play with the construction of identity within our work, Jon Leon the author and Jon Leon the character depicted in your writing. This partial autobiography is dangerous because some people would think it holds you accountable, but there is this aspect of inventiveness to the construction of “Jon Leon” that creates a sort of meta-distantiation from it while embodying it at the same time. You play with the idea of celebrity and I think your critical POV into celebrity justifies your playing with it, because you move beyond it. Which isn’t irresponsible, if you were to just read US magazine all day long and process it by consumption alone that would be irresponsible, lazy and predictable, but you write about it pretty lucidly which is different. You grasp it, play with it, manipulate it, one could say the same thing about Warhol.

bdydbl is an other self via the internet– an internet identity, protected by the screen like the director of a movie or the voyeur peeping through the window. The internet can be a screen that protects us and enables us to enact a fantasy, sometimes in line with reality sometimes not.

Jon: Yes, I agree, thanks. I feel sometimes when I’m working I’m destroying critical thought which is quite the opposite of what I’d like to accomplish. I feel more doubt about my methods now as more people approach my work. People seem to believe the most fantastic fictions. It makes giving public readings draining because I’m confronted with so many projections from the text. I can’t believe that people are still hung up on this trope that poetry is personal and “true” and that only in fiction or movies can one construct a character.

In my work on Lohan I’ve been trying to decipher how this disconnection between the public and the private evolves and is reinforced over time. Pure Celebrity, the working title of the book, could be defined as a situation in which the celebrity’s public persona is completely and wholly divorced from any personal reality, or artistic (commercial or otherwise) production. There’s also a discovery side to my research that aims to get past the surface. I think the ultimate end to celebrity is a return to privacy and personal life. There comes a point when one’s image becomes so inflated that they should no longer be looked at directly, like the sun, or Princess Diana.

It’s true about screens. They do offer some protection. Even honesty can be a screen. In the example of becoming so famous one returns to private life, or disappears, I believe there’s a compelling amount of aesthetic possibility there. Like Des Esseintes in Huysman’s Against the Grain (“A Novel Without A Plot”). One can aestheticize their surroundings and worship their own taste and their own body without this drive to be worshipped. To look instead of being looked at. To enjoy life.

It’s funny, whenever I think about you or talk about you I choose to call you BDYDBL. Names, designations, taxonomy can be so ridiculous. Maybe these fabrications, whether it be BDYDBL, Jon Leon, and others are a way to survive the decay of personal life that inevitably begins when one chooses to put their work on public display. I read somewhere Bret Ellis describing himself as a moralist. I get that.

BDYDBL: The construction of a character is a powerful poetry for instance with Rimbaud we not only know his poetry but we also know his mythology.

So then what you are saying is that the “real” Lindsay is not at all related to the celebrity of Lindsay, or more simply put Lindsay Lohan is not related to the image of Lindsay Lohan. And you are trying to find the intimate “true” Lindsay through introspection because it’s impossible to locate the “real” Lindsay through the screen.

Jon: As artists I think we should work with these images, fables, celebrities, and concepts because that’s what the majority of people pay attention to. It’s unavoidable. I want artists to be a part of the collective conversation like movie stars are. Artists have a lot to offer that conversation.

Outside of your drawings you use a lot of appropriated material in your work. Do you think it’s worthwhile to produce entirely new work at this point in art history? I sometimes think creating and adding to the seemingly infinite volume of artwork on the market is ridiculous. I mean, in the way you’re responding to culture as BDYDBL, it seems more poignant to use the detritus of that culture rather than to produce more of it. One of my favorite artists, Robert Heinecken, makes truly beautiful art out of existing photographs, and of course there’s Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, etc..Or like the coffee table Martin Kippenberger made out of a Richter painting. Eventually this appropriation activity becomes a kind of curatorial stance.

BDYDBL: Trying to create something “no one has thought of before” or “new” to me seems a limiting enterprise. I enjoy using images that people recognize or understand already — to propose a new way of seeing or digesting what is already out there. Even with my drawings I am examining a trope within art history, and then providing a new imagining of it. For example, my most recent drawing (Carla O. Lisk) is based on the odalisque or reclining nude. Historically the subject/object of the reclining nude has been depicted as passive, my odalisque is not, Carla is active. Sometimes when creating work I’ll make a breakthrough, but the breakthrough is usually related to my way of seeing, to my spiritual or mental composition, it can be new to me, or signify a new direction, a change in myself. I’m usually not thinking of “Art” but more of my personal evolution.

I really enjoy Heinecken’s work, how he manipulated the female image was very much a response to how the image of female is used within advertising, almost to a point of emptiness. What I find brilliant about the pictures gen is that they turned advertising in on itself — they embodied the medium to change or question the message.

Jon: Embodying the medium to change the message sounds apt. Maybe that’s why I often think of my drive to write as something I’m compelled to do — I’ve embodied the poetic. What I’d like to do is expel that poetic drive. I’d like to see things from the other side, the viewer, the consumer, the critic, one who looks at art rather than creating it. And I think ultimately that would mean an expulsion of something, an emptying out. The tricky thing is that the process of jettisoning may also end up as art. It definitely feels like the creative drive is one that grips its subject. Do you ever feel like trying to halt the inertia of your process? Maybe not even stopping production altogether, but trying to even it out. Like a weekend artist? I mean to say, is art better if its author is moved or controlled by the impulse to create, or if the author consciously moves the energy toward its release?

BDYDBL: Trying to halt the process of creation to me, would almost be like practicing abstinence, I think I would implode. I feel there is magic in both being controlled by the impulse or controlling it.

Is there any transparency in your work?

Jon: My work isn’t transparent, no, it obscures an already opaque position. When I look back on “Hit Wave,” a story collected in The Malady of the Century, and think about the time when I was writing it I feel like I was executing something highly literary in creating this hermetic tightly-controlled fictive world, but I often wonder why I felt like I needed to do that. I’ve been thinking a lot about the underlying motive for a writer’s drive to produce. It’s easy to say something reductive like “writers write, that’s what they do.” But why write? I feel like when one’s writing skirts the kind of fantasy / reality boundaries we’ve been discussing it brings one into an ethical dilemma. I think about that dilemma more as people respond to the book. For me, the writing was primarily about style. I think of myself as a stylist, and the language of fashion, sex, power, success, and domination seemed to be an attractive vocabulary. At the same time, it’s a provocative and confrontational vocabulary. I never meant to influence my audience to live their life in an irresponsible, excessive, way — not completely. Look at the effect of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. I mean, he had to live with the fact that his novel incited some people to kill themselves. “Werther Fever.” Literature can still be dangerous and consequential, which is probably a generative good thing, but one that comes with responsibility.

BDYDBL: In VICE they refer to you as “walking the line” – there’s this point while reading your work where you don’t know if it’s artistic gesture or genuine, and then the absurdity sets in and you realize it’s actually just beautiful compelling writing. Is this your intent or is that the byproduct of the process?

Jon: I think it’s intentional and superfluous. That’s the affect of writing, and my way of thinking through real and possible worlds. I’m not sure it matters whether it’s genuine or artificial. I simply wanted to write something pleasurable.

BDYDBL: I meant more specifically in thinking about your text on Lindsay Lohan, when I first heard you read it, I didn’t know if it was a genuine obsession with Lindsay or the act of using celebrity as a means to think about bigger things. Then I realized it’s probably all of the above. I also think that you move beyond the idea of obsession or celebrity or Lindsay through the act of writing, I guess what I’m trying to say is that the way you deal with your subject matter causes me to think about all of these factors, culture, media, art, writing. It moves beyond the subject.

Jon: It’s true, in the case of Lohan, she is my subject, but also a way to move beyond, and talk about many other things. I want to move beyond the surface of her image. It’s not an obsession, although I understand why people may call it that, but a way of writing through someone. Discovering Lindsay is a means to discovering the operation of selfhood. But also, quite simply, she is fascinating and moved me toward writing something fascinating.

BDYDBL: I wanted to ask you about your readings do you consider them performative? I would think that Jon Leon the character (not to make the unnecessary distinction) in your 1st person narratives is also somewhat performative. Do you ever think of your work in this way?

A quote from your book that i feel really relates to some of these discussions we’ve had regarding “genuine” or not is this:

“Keystone suggested to me that content was an extension of style. So I began to think one-dimensionally.”

Jon: I feel the most genuine when I’m front of people. What’s disappointing is that I don’t believe the audience knows the difference between the art and the artist anymore. Because of some of the confused responses my readings have aroused I no longer feel public readings are the most effective way to deliver the text. The readings are performative, but ultimately I feel closest to realizing my vision on the page, within the boundaries of a book.

And yes, I’ve always believed that style is substance.

BDYDBL: “discovering the operation of selfhood” feels very prescient especially in these times, “the age of the individual” and what that means, how much of a construction the “individual” is. That’s what BDYDBL plays with…how much advertising plays into the idea of self, how much we are sold our individuality, how capitalism really capitalizes on the construction of self and how much of a mirage this “self” actually is (like the surface of a Phillip’s painting). I think it’s necessary to try to dig beneath that surface or you might be sucked into buying a new self and by that I mean identifying with your possessions-as-self.

Jon: The operation of selfhood within the context of celebrity could be one of the most agonizing moral questions of our time. One can’t simply buy a new self, but only alter their existing principles and behaviors — develop one’s self. Selfhood becomes terrifyingly conflicted in a situation wherein you have a mob of paparazzi and journalists harassing you to be more yourself. I’m not sure the most productive question is to ask what a celebrity has done to deserve such attention. No, the most nagging question is what is perverted about a society that fabricates and stalks celebrity to its most absurd limit. When one is hunted, public life then becomes about how best to face an apocalyptic hostility rather than positive social engagement.

BDYDBL: Yes I agree there is something perverse about society, however there is this aspect to celebrity that I want to ask you about, and it refers back to your comment about “worshipping oneself in private” what do you think is at the core of the drive that compels a person to crave celebrity, is it emptiness, narcissism, societal conditioning, idol worship? I feel there is something to this that is beyond the temporal limits of our culture, maybe something having to do with religiosity as we touched on before, maybe something that started with the greeks — the reason as to why they wore masks on stage. Perhaps that was more true to the medium of acting – wearing the mask. What are your thoughts on this?

Jon: Oh, I think craving celebrity in the worst case is psychopathic. In the best case, it’s a recognition of one’s talent and a drive to share that with others. Wearing the mask is true in all mediums.