Hannah Black talks, writes, and compiles video clips about love, bodies, racism, pop music, sexism, desire, couples, and communism. How she connects these topics and how she manages to be at the same time painfully personal and spot-on in her general observations is the main fascination of her art and writing. Her work conveys and imparts an enormous excitement, in no small part because it seems at all times driven by a compelling urgency; you cannot not notice how invested she is in all her topics.
This exuberance of thought and affect is also documented in her twitter account, which aggregates all sorts of original associations, but it was also palpable in our two-hour chat conversation. Below you will find a tiny fragment of a frantic type-fest about hot babes, horrible bros, structural misogyny, and the burden and pleasures of “being-too-much.”
Hannah Black currently lives in New York where she just finished her year in the Whitney Independent Study Program. She writes a monthly column for The New Inquiry.
N.H. I like how your twitter works. One can witness the „gradual formulation of thoughts while tweeting“. Do you consider it part of your work?
H.B. My friend Jesse Darling did an interview ages ago, maybe it was for Rhizome, where they said that Twitter is their notebook, and I took that to heart.
N.H. I see, that totally makes sense. Do you want to talk about the relation between your writing and your art?
H.B. The relation between my writing and my art is that I try to think of them as contiguous, but also sometimes I can accomplish something in one that I can’t do in the other. For example, “My Bodies” was supposed to be a piece of writing for Lies Journal but I couldn’t write it, and “K in Love” which I wrote for The New Inquiry was supposed to be a video. The video kind of exists but was never finished; I might go back to it.
N.H. I am impressed by how publicly you speak about personal things. You address topics like love, body, and race politics very equally and not in a distanced-academic way. You make yourself vulnerable with your work. Would you agree?
H.B. I feel like it’s only recently that I decided I was just going to talk about myself and now I can’t stop!
H.B. I mean hopefully not myself only but myself as an example of a person. I assume that things that have happened to me probably happen to a lot of other people. So I hope it’s not a form of self-absorption—though maybe it’s also that.
N.H. So is this approach somewhat therapeutic for you, or do you think this way you can be more truthful in your work?
H.B. I mean it is also a kind of ethical thing. I take it seriously that our ideas are formed materially like by the material of being a person. I do feel overexposed sometimes, or I wonder if it’s partly this weird freedom I got from just being so bad at the conventional social form of like, getting into a serious relationship, having a ‚private life‘ in that sense.
N.H. I almost exclusively write academic texts because I feel like I can hide behind that distanced, scientific language.
H.B. I do regret being in public sometimes—or sometimes I feel like I wish I had more of a private life, to balance it out. Like sometimes if I’m doing a lot of public speaking or I’ve had a show or whatever or after I publish something. With the column I wrote, the gay shame one, my actual shame about that is that I feel like as with all writing, it’s as much untrue as it is true. But maybe the problem with academic language is that it implies more truth than it deserves. Also I worry that academic language is just expressive of the subject position of horrible bros.
N.H. You do have an academic background, right?
H.B. Not really, sort of, I have a B.A. in English from Cambridge and then I did an M.F.A. I’ve never really studied theory officially. That’s why I had a lot of fantasy about it maybe.
N.H. I hear you about the “horrible bros”. That kind of environment also makes me angry. Sometimes I argue but sometimes I just get depressed and can’t open my mouth anymore. I studied feminist linguistics and kind of can’t not notice even the subtle forms in which the bros put me down in academic contexts.
H.B. I’m just curious because I wonder how many of the men in the room would openly say that they don’t want to hear from women or they would prefer for women not to speak.
N.H. I don’t think they would. I really don’t think it’s conscious.
H.B. It reminds me of this thing in the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece about reparations, which really demonstrates how bigotry is structurally produced. It’s an anecdote from the 50s I think, there is this white guy burning shit on the lawn of a black family and he says to a reporter, „I’m sure they are nice people, I just can’t afford for the value of my house to go down“. Because houses lose value when black people move into the neighbourhood. So it’s just a really good example of how the liberal idea of „but I’m a nice person with nice opinions“ is bullshit, it’s structural. Same with these guys, they probably think they like women, but the fact is, they don’t want women to speak. It’s not personal, but it’s fucked up. These days I have no compunctions about yelling at a man „stop being such a fucking man“ if he interrupts me in a meeting or whatever. They do put women down, it’s true. I mean it’s disgusting, they disgust me.
N.H. You said that sometimes you can accomplish something in one medium (video art) that you can’t do in the other (writing). But it seems like words are always present even in your video art. In the “Intensive Care/Hot New Track” piece you do this rap. Can you say more about the text you use in that? Same in „My Bodies“ – are those your words?
H.B.The videos are full of writing yes. My MFA at Goldsmiths was this experimental programme called Art Writing, looking at writing as a mode of art practice, or writing as part of art practice. I write everything myself. I don’t consider the “Intensive Care” video a rap, it doesn’t really have the rhythm or syntax or whatever of rap, but several people have referred to it as a rap, I don’t mind I guess. The writing is like the spine of the videos but it’s not important to me that people hear every word, I just want to transmit a feeling. In “Intensive Care”, it’s not really so clear in the end result, but the text is trying to crash together the Rihanna/Chris Brown story and US colonialism/neo-colonialism, I think there’s a line that’s something like „his incursions into the territory of her body“, and there are excerpts from both Rihanna’s Oprah interview and Errol Morris’s documentary on Abu Ghraib where the American women soldiers talk about the torture they performed, under pressure from the men they worked with. Joan of Arc is in there too. There’s too much in there. “My Bodies” is much cleaner. The text there is imagining a moment between worlds, you’re about to be reincarnated and there’s a dog who is guiding you through the afterlife and back to the world, he’s based on a Mexican god called Xolotl who is literally „the god of the evening star and the god of being disgusting“ (of Venus and of deformities). I was thinking about what’s at stake in having or not having a body. Embodiment is connected to labour power, sexual violence, race, all of that. Maybe writing is a way to try to not have a body, or language is a way that we can experience the world without only being a body, or maybe those things, bodies and language, are not separate. „Body“ is also a word.
N.H. I love how ‘too much’ “My Bodies” is.
H.B. Yeah, all my videos are too much; I like that about them. I don’t really know what to think of them but I like that they are hysterical and too much, or maybe they are not technically hysterical, I don’t know…
N.H. Video in itself is kind of too much as a medium. There is sound, vision, movement…
H.B. I was having an intentional celibate phase when I made both “My Bodies” and “Intensive Care” and I think the videos were a way to do something that approximated sex or my idea of sex. So, you see, it’s all connected in the sense that both sex and the too-much-ness of the videos seem to me a way of insisting on the possibility of feeling someone else’s feeling.
N.H. What happened to the unfinished “K in love” video?
H.B. I showed it to Mary Kelly in a studio visit during the Whitney program and she gave me a hug, which tells you what kind of video it is, maybe.
Ha! That is my art celebrity story for the day.
N.H. Was that a big deal for you, meeting Mary Kelly? Is she a role model? Or who would you consider inspirational?
H.B. It was nice and I like her work but I guess the only person I got super excited about meeting was Gregg Bordowitz because “Fast Trip, Long Drop” was a big deal for me. It was a big deal because it is nakedly personal and afraid and self-disclosing and it’s so nice to see that. I guess he is in some ways in less danger because he is a handsome white man, but also he is sick, so he can be reckless. I like the vividness of his description of the sex that I think (if I’m not misremembering) he says might have been the moment that he became HIV-positive, it makes me feel kind to how we martyr ourselves to wanting to have feelings
N.H. Did you get to talk to him about these things?
H.B. Yeah, we talked about ambivalence, he asked me what my method was, I said „I just feel really intense about everything and then sometimes I feel so intense that I make a video“ and he said „maybe intensity is your method“. Which I still don’t know what that means, but I like it anyway. Well, I mean, it’s like you said about the videos being too much.
N.H. I wanted to ask you about „You are too much“. It seems like this is something men say to/think about women a lot. It is like we have to spare them our too-muchness. It reminded me of Chris Kraus’ I love Dick.
H.B. Oh yes, I love about two-thirds of that book. I love her defiant too-much-ness.
N.H. Which two-thirds did you like? I also feel ambivalent about that book. But it is kind of hard not to bring up Chris Kraus in this context. Here is a passage I underlined:
„I was talking. You were listening. You were witnessing me become this crazy and cerebral girl, the kind of girl that you and your entire generation vilified. But doesn’t witnessing contain complicity? ‘You think too much,’ is what they always said when their curiosity ran out.“
H.B.I don’t remember which parts of I Love Dick I didn’t like, maybe it was just that I got kind of exhausted by it as I read. Like the “Overly Attached Girlfriend”, Kraus is interesting to me because she has the most privileged possible position one can have as a woman, in that she is white, attractive, educated, employed, able to express herself publicly, etc.—she even has a male partner!—and she still experiences herself as totally abject. In terms of the imagery of patriarchy, white women are kind of positioned in this queasy way as being delicate, vulnerable, docile, which seems kind of enviable and kind of awful, and Kraus’s freakout against this is totally politically justified. It’s a kind of protest to talk too much, to be abject, to be surplus to men’s requirements. The paradox of the position is that as soon as it starts to understand itself as something other than abject, to understand its abjection as a strike against stupid and boring relations of domination, it loses itself. But that might be where the interesting work starts—when we start to think of our supposed pathologies as protests. And maybe where the book fails is that it just gives up at this point.
N.H. At times I even caught myself thinking: „You are too much! Stop it if you want the guy, play it cool.“ This is how deeply one starts to identify with these norms.
H.B. That is literally apparently how you get a man though. It is the kind of rape-culture aspect of hetero culture.
N.H. Yes, “withhold!”
H.B. You have to not want it—or seem to not want it. Drive guys wild with desire by not wanting them. It’s basically terrible. I mean I am sure some people have nice relationships regardless. But that seems accidental almost. I think women’s insistence on acting as women despite all the ways that men treat them like shit for it is a kind of heroism.
N.H. Is that your idea, or is that common sense in the rape culture debate? What happens once the woman ‚puts out‘? Is that the moment of rape and then the interest is gone (maybe you find those classically exemplified in Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer or in De Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses)?
H.B.I only came across the phrase ‚rape culture‘ relatively recently and I feel like I arrived at the conclusions about dating etiquette independently, long ago, but probably there was some outside influence. I came across a dating book called The Rules when I was young, maybe 19, and remember being horrified and fascinated by it. It has advice like „when he comes over, hide the Prozac.“ Of course if you are reading that book you are probably on antidepressants as well. I keep going back to it though because I think it was one of my formative experiences of like: “OK, this is all completely fucked.” Because what dating advice says is “There are rules, it’s not about pleasure, it’s about access to resources.” I just read the last pages of Making Sex by Thomas Laqueur and he interprets the bizarre psychoanalytic invention of the vaginal orgasm as a way for Freud to talk about how women have to give up their pleasure so that the heteronormative world of marriage and babies can continue.
N.H. What about the “Theory of the Hot Babe?” Is that an ideal? Does the ‘hot babe’ play along with the ‘rules?’
H.B.I guess wondering about what it’s like „being a babe” is related to how women who are never seen without makeup etc. seem to have a better analysis of current social relations in that they don’t believe there is some sacred ‚authenticity‘ that we are compelled to share with others in order to have more ‚authentic‘ relationships. Babe status seems to give those who possess it a more accurate standpoint from which to view the degradations of patriarchy. This worries me a bit where it appears as a kind of internalization of the imperative to be at all costs attractive to men, on pain of death, poverty, or other feminized forms of disappearance, but I enjoy the babe’s defiance, her refusal to become raw material for the naturalization of capitalist social relations, her refusal to become nature. However I am still working on being able to perform some version of this. I’m still haunted by authenticity, but I don’t want to be. Which is totally depressing and just proves how, to quote myself, „it’s not that we have to end heterosexuality, we have to begin it“ (this is only polemically true maybe). I do think this might be specific to a certain kind of misogynist pathology. In which women can only be loved through a kind of idealized image of them, and then one is constantly disappointed by reality.
Bad Behavior is Nadine Hartmann’s monthly conversation with a female artist/musician/writer whose work strikes her as particularly sensitive to issues of gender. Rather than staying within the strict frame of the classic interview, she aims to have a dynamic conversation about art, pleasure, anger, bodies, love, questions of visibility and the process of creating a performance persona which becomes so pressing in the age of intense self-representation. Bad Behavior #1 will appear in the first print issue of KubaParis.