“ARTIST” INTERVIEWS HIMSELF: DOUBT, SELF-REDESIGN BY CONFLICT, & THE WHACK FUTURE-NOW
By Thad Higa and Thad Higa
Hey Thad, how’s it going?
Great. Fine. It’s okay.
Powerful start. Well first off I just want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to me.
Sure thing boss.
Why don’t you give me a brief overview of what you’ve been up to at the Box Jelly Artist Residency.
I’ve been working with words and books in different forms. From straight up writing and typewriting on six foot scrolls, to concrete poetry making, to actual concrete letter molding, to words mixed and collaged with images and book landscapes. I’m also playing around with roguish graphic design, typography and cardboard page-frames, experimenting with ways to mix visual and written language in resonant ways. I’ve also been working with three chair…things.
Sounds like you’ve really honed your medium. Can you specify what the chairs have to do with anything?
I think they’ll be representations of reading as a revolutionary action, contemplative confrontation of reading in the digital age.
You “think.” So you don’t really know, do you?
Well I’m still developing ideas. I’m just spitting out creations that excite me, thinking that listening to my impulses will bring out all the relevant material I need for a show.
That sounds pretty naive. What are the scrolls about?
Different themes. Issues of identity and displacement and re-designing the self and self-image. American war crimes. Climate change. Religion. Love, loneliness, desire, depression, hatred rhetoric. Infinite monkey theorem. Some short fiction if I can get to them.
So basically just a bunch of broad, trendy themes?
Well no—I mean, yeah, a lot of them are in the trends now, they’re the pressing issues on a lot of people’s minds, and it’s not that I’m treading new ground on, say, climate change for instance. I’m not trying to offer solutions for what to do about America’s war machine. It’s more about the effects of a maximized consumption of information, and the pressure that’s put on everyone to have and make opinions about everything, even as they are not well-researched on the topic at hand. I’m also investigating ways to represent a modern human with multiple, urgent and contemporary concerns. How should a person be, how easy it is to lose your mind in the world as it is, how to be completely depressed and awkward and disassociate, how words resonate within and shape our lives, the effects of the willingness to communicate or the reasons for blatant disregard towards it. Will opening ourselves up to all of these questions, opinions and information accelerate evolution, or will it bring about a mass breaking point? How can we exist amidst this overflow while maintaining a vital capacity to care? Take how we’ve been changing Earth’s environment for instance. The climate crisis is so vast it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by that alone. Simultaneously, just a few of our current concerns in America include racism, gentrification, homelessness, school shootings, opioids, voting rights suppression, sexism, identity issues. Then just consider attempting to be a “well-adjusted” person amongst these, balancing out these concerns with your daily work and a healthy social life. It’s a crazy, crazy time we live in. There’s a constant lurking threat of disaffection, ennui and despair. To feel so overwhelmed and cynical you stop caring or doing anything on any of these fronts. Forgetting about your local community. Holing yourself away physically or picking up vices to suspend the existential malaise. Or actively working against a better future by exerting your selfishness outward because you feel like you can’t take it any other way.
Do you need help?
Oh, yeah, you mean like help with production for the show? Yeah I have a lot of ideas that not sure if I’ll finish in—
No, no I mean do you need help? Therapy help.
Oh. Uh, well, actually I’ve recently been thinking a lot about how I don’t want to be a crazed-artist stereotype.
Well you’re doing a bang up job.
Wha—why…are you being sarcastic?
What are you currently listening to, what are you reading, what are you watching?
I’m listening to “Soledad y el Mar” by Natalia Lafourcade, PJ Morton’s album Gumbo, and an album of Fela Kuti covers called Red Hot + Riot. Also listening to Joe Frank’s radio theatre series Rent-A-Family. It’s a little bit difficult to listen to at times though because the people are so deranged by their loneliness, and the voice actors so visceral…it’s very dark and strange, but I love it. I’m reading Ocean Vuong’s book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Incredible. Incredible. Ocean is my favorite writer right now. You have to watch his talk at The Strand. Also, I’m almost done with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which is so long and devastating. It’s about the weight and capacity of deep friendships and how they morph over the years, and help us to cope with deep traumas. Then I recently watched BlaKkKlansmen, and this episode of Documentary Now! which is a spoof on Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present. It’s so funny.
What do you feel about art as therapy?
Woooow. Are you kidding me? Man, you’re so basic sometimes, it’s cute. In a disgusting way. I’ve felt pretty ill the past few weeks, just working all the time, art and overthinking and sitting down and looking at the same places till I’m sick. Maybe that’s what the chairs are about: a product of loose consciousness, letting the spool of thoughts run out the door while you’re just sitting there imploding. I know it’s a bad work routine, but I want to push it. A key ingredient is an obsession for work, production, and consumption. Very materialistic, capitalistic. When you don’t have healthy outlets for the constant flow of information it can rot your core. I want to convey some rot. I want some of this rot so I can access the desperation. Desperation is important to me.
That’s interesting. That right there is the beginnings of a common trope of the artist becoming the asshole. You are also basic in your desperation narrative, and your constant craving for the dramatic.
I suppose. Yes. But I want to variegate the tropes. I like art that’s bombastic, maybe even volatile, and gets right up in the face. That totally turns me on. I’m also very interested in silence and quiet abstractions, but yeah, maximalism too. I like extremes. Very American. I like—it’s a very western mode of thinking: extremes, and binaries, this or the other, white or black. I want to get at what’s between the binaries, that’s where the truth is.
Why does your art have to be so dramatic, have to take on big issues? Why can’t you just, say, watercolor waves, maybe take up surfing? You gotta get laid man, or go on some surfing dates?
I’ll never surf. Every time someone asks me that I’m adding another five years to not surfing. But, you know, when I’m dead you can send me out to sea on a surfboard, that’d be pretty funny.
I see you drying out into a bitter, old man right before my eyes.
Art doesn’t have to be dramatic. Art doesn’t have to be anything, I don’t care, it doesn’t have to say anything! God I hate that! I don’t care about that dumb question what is or isn’t art, or what it should or shouldn’t do. Who cares?!? I only care about what is art worth spending time with. My thing is, if you have the opportunity, the talent, the means, and/or the privilege to make art, then why not at least try to work on something multidimensional, that tackles current social or political issues and crosses analog and digital and conceptual forms, that reaches into the unknown, or something deep inside you, something that defines you disturbs you enriches you, that paints undertold stories, walks new plateaus or creates connections between homelands previously divided? Treat your materials and your time as the finite resources they are. Why are you wasting these resources with menial, unthoughtful bullshit? Find the things and the people you care about. What aspects of life do you want to improve? Work in that space. Expand and furnish that room. Do it so it matters. Do it so it lives and isn’t just some inert corpse once you’re done with it. I want connections between others and between myself and the world. To be connected is to be alive. What connects you to your place? What connects you to people? I want art to tackle absurdly large, cosmic, difficult, unanswerable issues because it has the capacity to do that. Also, I really really don’t care about art for art’s sake. That’s over. That’s nothing. No one cares. Teach me to care.
And how do you propose that? You can’t teach people to care like it’s arithmetic. Art for art’s sake is an avenue of showing people how to care because it forgoes the dogma of language. It aims straight for beauty. And repeatedly exposing people to this beauty is the only way to teach. Furthermore, it is necessary as a direct confrontation of all the ugliness of the world. Once we are open to seeing and knowing what is beautiful, what is beauty, we will naturally preserve and propagate it.
Okay, yeah, well, so what? I believe that.
You just said “art for art’s sake is over.” You sound like an art dictator, emphasis on the dick. Your words drove you into a cul-de-sac. How drunk are you?
You heard me.
Dude, that doesn’t even apply to what I was talking about. Are you even listening? I said a bunch of other stuff too.
Course I’m listening. I’ve noticed with you a stark division: Your sober, meek, introverted babbelling, and your drunk, bullish, circle-jerking, preacher-proclamations, both of which are tiresome.
I—I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re only hearing what you want to hear. Man, you’re—it’s you that’s prodding me into making these statements. You want me to be a dick!
Are you self conscious about being an inefficient whacko?
[Exasperated sigh] Sometimes. Often. But other times I like it. I feel, uh…more myself, I guess. We’re getting off topic here.
There is no “topic” to stray from, son. We’re just talking. Tell me about your relationsh—
Listen, don’t condescend to me. I need a break.
Fine. Take five.
[I expected Thad to storm off after this unceremonious break, but instead he straightened himself in his seat, stilled his body facing me, and stared. Was he for real? I came into this meeting feeling as detached as a stone that sits beside a river. But following our initial interactions, an urge to destroy him overcame me. I felt as if tasked by a higher power. I tossed out my usual surface questions, and scribbled a few words to ground my new purpose: unmask, debase, scrub out. I would confront him with his petty fabrications and reveal the base of his falsehoods. He appeared to be everything I struggled against: a densely-layered, overly-decorated fart of a man. I had met people like him before, but never with such deep fraudulence, so deep it appeared hidden even to himself. I believe he knew of himself as an artist, but insisted on non-artistry as a schtick, and by avenue of this backwards humility (and the even deeper insecurities that propelled it) pushed an agenda of frenetic obscuration and obliqueness. He was undermining the very thing he claimed to protect: communication. Yet, here before me, the charlatan sat and stared with a glaze covering his whole body like a membrane. He wasn’t seeing me at all; he had left the room. To where? What game was this? Before I could suss out his impetuous manipulations, he returned.]
Okay. Next question.
Alright then. I was going to ask, before you rudely interrupted me with your counterfeited weirdness, to tell me about your relationship to words.
Words reach me in a way other art forms don’t. Certain lines will just hit me in the gut and…just, I don’t know, live inside me. Like when you wake up in the morning and a song is in your body. Something like that.
Do you feel trapped in your own head, surrounded by an impenetrable wall of nonsense words? And secondary question, do you have any real friends?
Yeah—what? You know, self-deprecating humor is only so funny before it’s just annoying and obstructive. Stop being mean to me.
I’m merely probing you to figure out if you’re saying anything honest or if it’s all a put on. Perhaps you’re a slave to your own narratives, the words you deem so important?
No. I feel—
No, no, Jesus. Well you know, that’s something I think about a lot. I’m so afraid of becoming unfeeling. A huge part of my issues from working on this residency, and why I’m thinking about becoming a crazed artist so much is cause the work is so immersive. I write it out beforehand, do some research into the topic, searching for sources to pull from and converse with. And then I conceptualize the scroll, how it will layout as a typographic work, and then visualize in tandem what images I’ll try to work in. Or if I’m gonna make some cuts and collage outside paper bits into it. After that’s all done, the actual typing part is quite obsessive, but it does give me some sort of relief once I find the rhythm of it. The tactile sensations of the typewriter is meditative. But it’s round after round of pushing this stuff out, and on top of it working with these chairs, and creating little universes of books and figuring the entirety of the space with mirrors and concrete words about topics that…well, none of them are like, happy, or joyful topics—I feel like I’m digging a grave for myself. I’m afraid of becoming so consumed by the work that it’ll sever me from the world that everyone else lives in, or at least has access to live in, and all anyone will end up seeing at the end is the product of a fringe workaholic who’s lost himself to words and imaginary worlds. And if I do get that disconnected, the art is bound to be shit. I want to create an immersive, connective world that is electric and alive and has multiple entry and exit points, to create art that can self-contextualize in the map of humankind, and through its obsessive forms can provide platforms for hope and beauty and moments that accentuate the strength of simplicity. I’ve been having escalating bouts of mania that—I don’t know, I really don’t know if it’s helping or deterring. I don’t know if it’s necessary or preventable, or if I’m trapped in a narrative of possessed artists. And then, after years of excavating like this, I don’t know if it will be worth it.
Don’t you think it’s obnoxious to say “I want my art to do this,” “I want to show you beauty,” “I want to create a connective, electric world.” Don’t tell me what you want to do. Just do it. Show me. Or quit, and stop talking about it.
…Is that—is this a question?
You put “artist” in quotes in the title of this interview. Why?
No, I’m pretty sure you did that. Why did YOU do that?
Because I believe you are a phony.
Hahaha, yeah, well, maybe that’s one thing we agree on. I feel like I’m only playing at being one. So much doubt. Some days I’m ok. Other days I think…yo, you should definitely give up. Climb a tree instead. I mean, I know I’m very lucky to be making art and not struggling for shelter and food. But that title has so much baggage. I’m equally repulsed and in awe of the title “artist”, but either way don’t deep down feel like I deserve it. Give me some ten years and see where I’m at then. I think I’d rather be referred to as a social worker.
Hahahah are you kidding me?
Have you read the essay, “The Artist as Social Worker vs. The Artist as Social Wanker” by Anthony Schrag?
No. What are you saying?
Well, never mind then. Have you ever thought that you’re just the blunted debris of better artists, writers and thinkers, most of which are all dead?
…Yes…but, I’m—it’s not like I’m trying to tread new territory. I’m just trying to create more nuance to old stories, and find new, evolving representations for the portrait of a human. I don’t know man. I’m just—bottom line, I’m just trying to make things that I think…make me happy?
But through it all, through your doubt, fear of mania, and false humility, you think pretty highly of yourself don’t you? And you try to cover it up by saying “Oh, I don’t know, oh I’m insecure, I might sacrifice my sanity to make this beautiful trash, woe is me.” Okay, next question—
What the hell man? I don’t want to answer any more questions. I’m sick of it! What the hell is this? You’re always so negative, always cracking cynical jokes, always disingenuous rags. I’m done.
Hey, hey, come now, we’re almost done. I’m just being real with you. And just a couple more questions. Hang in there all star! Come on, please? You’re doing great. Every one’s gonna love you!
Oh my god man. Shut! Up!
Sit down, sit down. Okay speed round. What’s the correct way to handle your doubts as an “artist” and furthermore, as a human? Punch it in the face?
No. Holding its hand I think. Or hugging it. Or taking it out to a nice restaurant and—
Incorrect. Next question. What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist and also you were a mute and had no hands, AND your parents called you every week to accuse you of stealing things from them?
Holy cow. Great question.
Correct, and thank you. What’s your address and telephone number?
What? No. I’m not gonna say. But, well, I’ve been house-sitting at different spots, it’s put me in this anxious, spiritual limbo, I can’t fig—
And last question. Do you feel like you’re an asset or a detriment to Hawaiʻi, do you think your opinions, your “art,” your psyche, and the space you take up here will benefit or harm the community, and following generations? Do you think you belong here at all? And please explain why.
Um, well, god I don’t know. I hope so. I’m trying to—I don’t think I’m doing a disservice at least. And also—well, who am I to say? I think, maybe it could be—
And thank you so much for your time Thad.
Pfff. Whatever. Jackass.