The Saturday Rumpus Interview: Jacob Wren

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I first met Jacob Wren in 2009 at a writing retreat in Lithuania. Since then his writing has never ceased to impress me. Wren is a writer willing to take risks and ask big philosophical questions. His books include: Unrehearsed BeautyFamilies Are Formed Through CopulationRevenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, and Polyamorous Love Song, a finalist for the 2013 Fence Modern Prize in Prose and one of The Globe and Mail’s 100 best books of 2014. As co-artistic director of Montreal-based interdisciplinary group PME-ART he has co-created the performances: En français comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticizeIndividualism Was A MistakeThe DJ Who Gave Too Much Information and Every Song I’ve Ever Written. International collaborations include: a stage adaptation of the Wolfgang Koeppen novel Der Tod in Rom (Sophiensaele, Berlin), An Anthology of Optimism (co-created with Pieter De Buysser / Campo, Ghent), Big Brother Where Art Thou? (a project entirely on Facebook co-created with Lene Berg / OFFTA) and No Double Life For The Wicked (co-created with Tori Kudo / The Museum of Art, Kochi, Japan.) He travels internationally with alarming frequency and frequently writes about contemporary art.

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The Rumpus: So I wanted to start by asking you about the impetus for writing Polyamorous Love Song. Did something specific inspire it?

Jacob Wren: Mainly I was thinking about the relation between art and ethics. I was wondering why so many artists felt that they had to transgress ethics in order to be groundbreaking. And, on the other hand, why other artists felt they had to partially leave art behind in order to act more ethically in the world.

Rumpus: Why do you think there is this split between artists? Do you think that divide has always been there? Or is it a more recent phenomenon?

Wren: I think in the 20th century there was a kind of explosion as to what art could or might be. This was also connected to 2oth century political movements, connected to an explosion of possibilities as to what politics or society might look like. But if art can be anything, if society can perhaps be anything, it is a bit like we’ve opened Pandora’s Box. Where does it end? How do you set limits and make decisions?

Rumpus: Has the way we looked at artistic possibility changed in the 21st century?

Wren: The answer to that question is most likely: the Internet. But I’m still not completely sure how the Internet has changed our sense of art. Maybe it’s still far too early to tell. The Internet is still changing so much.

Rumpus: Ideally the Internet has opened up even more opportunities for artists to be free, right?

Wren: Yes, but The Internet also places a kind of focus on the fact that when I, as an artist, post something it is essentially no more or less important that anything anyone else might post. It is the great, depressing equalizer.

Rumpus: I know another theme in your writing is how capitalism shapes art. Do you feel that the Internet has changed that relationship as well?

Wren: That’s a really good question. I think there’s a moment now with the internet when it still has a sense of opening. In the future it will probably become more like television, which will feel less open. But, as we see with mp3s in music, the Internet creates a sense in which art is free and artists don’t necessarily need to be paid. While, at the same time, Apple is making more money than Exxon, connected to the content that both people and artists create for free.

Rumpus: Do you think the Internet provides an illusion of freedom then?

Wren: Well, I think even an illusion of freedom also has an element of genuine freedom contained within it. Freedom is a feeling.

Rumpus: In some cases, freedom is a very real thing though, right? As in the case of artists who are literally not able to produce work under an authoritarian regime? Do you think “free” society is less free than we feel that it is?

Wren: Yes, I think our so-called free society is actually constrained by a fairly rigid status quo. We can allegedly speak about whatever we want but if your discourse is too far away from the discourse accepted by the status quo you will be marginalized.

And, as we can see with the Black Panthers, if you start to offer a real, effective alternative there is a very real chance you will be killed.

Sometimes I think a kind of ‘secret freedom’, a freedom that only takes place in secret among small groups of like minded people, is much closer to what we mean by freedom than the so called public, but often powerless, freedom we are currently granted. In Polyamorous Love Song, there’s this trope of secret societies, along the same lines as the Russian Samizdat movement.When things take place in secret they have time to grow, to form more fully, without the real world cutting them down or appropriating them too quickly.

Rumpus: Let’s talk a little about the vignette structure of your book—did you always know that this would be a novel?

Wren: No, I think when I started I didn’t quite yet know it would be a novel. But perhaps I hoped it would. I had this idea—partially stolen from the novel Impossible Object by Nicholas Mosley—that every time we started a new chapter we wouldn’t be quite sure where we were, if we were still in the same book or if we had jumped to somewhere else. I wanted to put both myself and the reader in this destabilized situation.

Rumpus: What was the effect of that on your writing process?

Wren: I kept trying to surprise myself. I kept trying to take some sudden left turn that not even I was expecting. I was searching for a new kind of novel. A kind of novel that perhaps I hadn’t quite seen before, or hadn’t quite seen in that way.

Rumpus: Did it also impact the editing process? As you went back and revisited earlier chapters?

Wren: The writing is a kind of structured improvisation. And I try to keep that sense of spontaneity. So editing happens but it’s usually pretty light.

Rumpus: One of the things I love about your writing is your emphasis on interdisciplinarity and your broad definitions of what it means to be an artist. I know you do a lot of performance art and screenwriting, in addition to writing novels. Do you feel that you have a dominant genre as an artist?

Wren: Mainly I feel I’m searching for something new, something that gives me a feeling that something new is happening in art or in literature. And a lot of times something new might come from taking something that happens in one art form and in some sense transferring it into another medium.

Rumpus: Who are the most exciting artists out there today, in your opinion? And who are the most overrated?

Wren: Well… a lot of current artists who are highly rated don’t seem that interesting to me. I’m searching for something a little bit more political and strange. I really like the Norwegian visual artist Lene Berg. I loved the novels The Transformation by Juliana Spahr and Aliens & Anorexia by Chris Kraus. I feel, for my generation of writers, Chris Kraus is really the central figure, the most important.

Rumpus: Why is that?

Wren: She represents a kind of feminist, with a highly political honesty that is both in continuity with, and rebelling against, a former experimental literature that might be represented by someone like Kathy Acker, who I also love. How to experiment, speak about what’s really happening in the world today, and still be personal and honest.

Rumpus: Are those your primary aims as an artist today as well? If you are calling for a revolution through art, what kind of revolution do you want to see?

Wren: I really don’t know exactly what kind of revolution I want to see. I would like to be in a world where we treat each other and the planet with more respect and more kindness. But I genuinely have no idea how to get from here to there. And I also don’t know if art can even be part of this particular goal. So I have so many more questions than answers. My goal is to keep questioning.

Rumpus: With the advent of the Internet, things almost seem more visibly cruel today.

Wren: I think we’re really heading into a pretty dark place. And, at the same time, I think we have to keep searching for possibilities, for openings.

Rumpus: What advice would you give young artists today, who really want to remain loyal to their vision and who are committed to being artists?

Wren: The only thing that works is persistence.

Rumpus: Two of the threads I saw in your book had to do with the relationship between art and authenticity and art and taboo. Obviously these two threads are longstanding concerns for artists. Do you think some of these concerns are changing in the 21st century?

Wren: Well, the question of authenticity on the Internet is of course a fascinating one. In this situation when we are constantly presenting ourselves, in a way advertising ourselves, on social media. I’ve always said that authenticity is a feeling. And different people feel different things to be authentic. It is said we live in a time without taboos but I often feel almost the opposite is true. That there are things that get talked about all the time and other things that only get talked about in relatively small circles.

Rumpus: What’s your next big creative project?

Wren: I’m working on a new novel entitled Rich and Poor. It’s about a man who washes dishes for a living who decides to kill a billionaire as a political act.

Rumpus: That sounds fascinating—will you be using a similar postmodern structure to tell that story? Or will it have a more traditional narrative?

Wren: Perhaps a bit of both. Sometimes I’m not even sure what other people think is more or less conventional. I have my own ideas about these things that may or may not connect with a more general consensus.

Rumpus: Considering general consensus: Beyoncé or Beck. Who should have won the grammy?

Wren: Definitely Beyoncé. Yesterday I tweeted: “Macklemore beating Kendrick makes the point more clearly than Beck beating Beyoncé. But the point is the same every year.”

Rumpus: Do you think Kanye is a force for good in the art and music world then?

Wren: Well, he’s a complete megalomaniac that makes amazing beats. Definitely a complex figure. I still remember the “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” moment. That was really something. I can’t think of anything else in popular culture that was quite like it.

Rumpus: Is pop culture art?

Wren: Sometimes I think a more interesting question is: is art still art? We’re living in a time when, it seems to me, we don’t quite know what art is for any more and, at the same time, there seems to be more art than ever. I would like to see a world with a more varied corporate ownership of pop culture. Now it’s something like six corporations own everything. This definitely creates less variety than there could be.

Rumpus: Do you think we used to know what art was?

Wren: I suppose there was a time when art was connected to animism, to spirituality, and then later to organized religion. Then, even later, art was a bourgeois status symbol, meant to show wealth, refinement and culture. Of course, during all of these periods it was most likely much more complex. But now I think we feel art can be anything. And when something can be anything there is always the possibility for a crisis of meaning.

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Photo 3 credit. All other images contributed by author.


Arielle Bernstein's work has been featured in the Atlantic, Salon, IndieWire, and RogerEbert.com, among other publications. She teaches writing at American University and edits TORCH at The Rumpus. You can follow her on Twitter at @NotoriousREL. More from this author →