[TALKING] with Barzun when he's not in the room / Darren Marsh & karl kempton

kk: Darren, I have the honor of being asked to interview you and discuss your long visual poem work, weneverstoodapart, in relation to Barzun. Before we get to your specific intent, I would like you to give us a sense of yourself and how you arrived at and set up a home, so to say, in creative expression. This is generally a field generally opposed by one’s parents and family. Also, both our nations’ economic forces and opportunities present considerable barriers inhibiting such careers.

dm: I always had a compulsion to make, to explore, to subvert, to learn new things and with that comes opportunities to spend time with people who enrich your life. I have discussed this many times. Why do we do what we do? Maybe, this is how we make sense of our worlds. And maybe by trying to make sense of our worlds we help each other through it.

I started in graphic design, which is often about the visual word, but my art practice centred on painting. There was a realisation that this was what I wanted. I’m from a working class background so there is no economic support or an open door into the arts. I’ve always supported myself through employment. I don’t see what I do as a “career”. Like most artists I don’t earn a living wage from my work. It’s a choice. I have enough money to live and I have the freedom to make the work I want to make.

kk: Within the wider fields of aesthetics and philosophy what are trends and concepts you gravitate towards and others raising objections? What, if any, were those at first accepted that are now set aside or rejected?

dm: Because of my design background and the period in which I studied (late 80’s / early 90’s), the influence of modernist movements, especially typographical experimentation and image-making made a significant impression. Artists such as Piet Zwart, Alexander Rodchenko, Lásló Maholy-Nagy, Dieter Rot, Richard Hamilton and many more. All of whom had a tremendous influence on later graphic designers — Wim Crouwel, Neville Brody, Malcom Garrett, Peter Saville, Vaughan Oliver, Emigre, 8vo. Typography and graphic design were in some ways definitive of Britain in the late 20th Century. I feel fortunate to have studied when I did.

Xlendi. pre 2000, pencil on paper

_0236. 2004, oil and aerosol on board

But I also found myself drawn to the organic: to abstract expressionism especially Helen Frankenthaler’s experimental works on paper, the painting and mark making processes of Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly. I spent many years studying and exploring this space. Pigment, staining, mark-making. Layering upon layer, scraping back, reworking and reapplying. Marks growing into associations —  into painting — into visual language.

_04 untitled. 2006, oil, wax crayon & emulsion on panel

_09 untitled. 2006, oil & emulsion on panel

I eventually reached a point of feeling trapped by it all. It had become too inward looking, too repetitious. The idea of openness and freedom of expression that had initially attracted me, became restrictive. I gradually moved away from painting. Yet, it is still very much embedded in everything I do. 

I do look at artists’ work, however in recent years I read. Reading, or even misreading, provides me with a new space. Writing on technology theory, science and philosophy, Gilbert Simondon, Deleuze & Guattari, Manuel DeLanda, OOO (Object Orientated Ontology), Lynn Margulis and Donna Harraway, I take what connects.

MOUSE. published 2016

Ketsuban. published 2017

kk: You call this work a visual poem. Who or what first moved you to consider and probe the arena of visual poetry?

Whilst studying graphic design I was influenced and aware of the earlier 20th Century typographical and poetry experiments. Working as a designer with Philip Davenport at applepie on several of it’s publications over the last decade, especially The Dark Would anthology, has revealed to me a considerable amount of text art and visual poetry. Márton Koppány’s The Secret used on the cover, still blows me away in its elegance and simplicity. The asymmetrical bracketing operating as a code to be decrypted. The form and structure of the brackets protect and reinforce what is hidden. I want to decode the work and know what is hidden inside, while simultaneously questioning if I really want to know. The space remains both open and closed (ambiguous). Eric Zboya’s algorithmic translations and Liz Collini’s typographical drawings both hold a strong visual presence, while conveying ideas on language systems. Text becomes image—image text, boundaries blur. Sarah Sanders and Harold Stoffers cathartic writing. The act of writing repetitiously, layer upon layer, as a mode of expression. It takes me back to Cy Twombly, my earlier painting processes and graffiti writing.

The Secret. Márton Koppány, 2011

If I had to be pinned down on a significant influence for this particular work as visual poem, I think it would be Dieter Roth. His use of form and structure in those early bookworks to create a space or visual performance. Visual poetry. He approached language as something to be subverted and transformed. And ditto the book. The material of the book as an expressive medium in itself — this is something I also share with Henri Barzun.

kk: Would you explain your multimedia approach to and discipline in general leading up to weneverstoodapart?

I felt confined by the work I was making and needed a change in direction. Around the same time, the dichotomy between analogue and digital was becoming increasingly debated, especially within the plastic arts. I had always played with image-making using “inappropriate” means, like technology, like graphics/words, often applying the aesthetics and processes I explored in painting; I began to realise that for me the digital/analogue dichotomy was irrelevant and actually here was a possible avenue. The digital allows me to explore what drawing cannot and vice versa. One is no more important than the other, a symbiotic relationship. I enjoy de-coding and re-coding, malfunction —  and allowing the aesthetic to unfold through the process.

ISBN. published 2018

kk: weneverstoodapart without an explicit statement of intent becomes for some rorschach art, an expression open for several possible meanings close to or distant from your intent and concerns. Misinterpretation through “rorschach” experiences of other pieces from your body of work may not be a concern, but this work has explicit and focused political, ecological and philosophical intent caused by your societal and environmental concerns. Some suggest experiencing a type of landscape, others I would suggest topographical, sonar or thermal mapping. One sees your visual poem illuminating the complexity of biospheric interconnectedness. Where did you (if you in fact did) depart from previous works and if so what was newly added to your process in order to compose this work?

dm: Misinterpretation and ambiguity come with the territory. When working with abstraction I find titles a useful technique of focusing intent and offering an access point. The title is as much part of the work as the image and the object. They should all reinforce one another. I never wanted to make a piece that was data driven or riddled with factoids. It was about trying to find a way to express things ontologically.

Merleau-Ponty was important in this work. We not only see those things that make up the world, but we see ourselves in the world. “My body is a thing among things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world and it’s cohesion is that of a thing”. My body simultaneously sees and is seen. Vision and movement intertwined. This reflexivity leads to a kind of ambiguity of vision which affects our being and more importantly how we access things.  Reality is ambiguous and our human experience is filled with ambiguity and misinterpretation. Things are exactly as they are, yet never as they seem.

pportrait #11. 2014, ballpoint pen on trace [scanned & inverted]

sketch. 2015, ballpoint pen on trace [scanned & inverted]

Strange Attractor #1. 2016, ballpoint pen on trace [scanned & inverted]

kk: While you seem unconcerned — as many of us in varying degrees who compose / write / shape visual poetry — whether or not a work or body of works is “correctly” understood and experienced, nevertheless we hope to induce a specific intended experience at first sighting / reading or belated epiphany. This desire of course varies between playful and serious works, their context and the full conscious intent. I look at and read weneverstoodapart as a work of the latter type.

We seem to share similar environmental and societal concerns and express them through our art(s). I have been an environmental activist for over 45 years with measured successes, some perhaps significant, and many heartfelt setbacks particularly working for and with the Chumash striving to save sacred sites.

I read, see and feel two major themes running through weneverstoodapart. First, we are not separate entities a part from the global (the wider solar system, galactic and the universe) environment. The second is that all of humanity is one family; we must act accordingly because we are all sisters and brothers. To go deeper I add the Americas First Peoples’ embrace of all life forms: we are all relatives of one another.

dm: As you intuited in the work, we are not separate entities living apart from the global environment. There is biospheric entanglement. I’m thinking beyond humanity and how all living things are interconnected and interdependent in some way. Genomics research is allowing us to see this. I find this idea, that we are complex assemblages of multi-species relationships, very liberating. This places the concept of the autonomous “individual” into question.

I would like us to let go of our anthropocentric conditioning. To de-centre our species and psychologically re-attune. As Lynn Margulis said “We need to be freed from our species-specific arrogance. No evidence exists that we are “chosen”, the unique species for which all others were made”.

The constant data feed of questionable environmental facts fed to us by the media isn’t helping the situation. Maybe it’s not about what we believe but how we believe. How we access things. If we have a deeper ecological understanding, a psychological connection, then a better system of ethics could emerge. 

Maybe the real change has to start on an individual level. The final sentence in Tim Morton’s book, Being Ecological, reads “You don’t have to be ecological. Because you are ecological.” … and we always have been. We are enmeshed.

weneverstoodapart. Book 1 - A traumatic loss of coordinates, published 2020

weneverstoodapart. Book 2 - Things are exactly as they are, yet never as they seem, published 2020

weneverstoodapart. Book 3 - How enmeshed we are, published 2020

kk: In response to the above mentioned“interconnectedness,” “anthropocentric conditioning,” and “psychologically re-attune.” I would like to present an observation for response. First I would like to share a bit of my own story as a setup. The following I know is contrary to most contemporary thinking about art and literature and associated philosophies and criticisms in our Eurocentric dominated cultural expressions.
In the early 1970s while attending graduate school I was listening to contemporary art music, some of which was electronic. I attended as many modern dance performances I could; nearly all the music was contemporary. So we share this musical interest and are aware of the abstract multi dimensional spaces such music shapes and makes available. At the same time I was teaching my eye to see studying Arabic classical calligraphy while exploring my first efforts with my typewriter concrete poems that later became visual poems. Later, I self taught myself in global art, from rock art to contemporary, and continued exploring and expanding my typewriter visual poems.
Moving to rural California in 1975 I consciously removed myself from urban and literary centers to pursue my poetic. My experiences with academic institutional rigidity left me unsettled. Urban America does not nourish me. I live where people come to take vacations. I decided like you to not make myself a literary / artistic careerist to support my needs, but work with my body to keep mind free. As a semi recluse I continued my global materialist economic historical studies into the mid 1980s before turning towards spiritual and experiential ways to attempt a unitary embracive expression. This effort continues.
When I first arrived in this area I had no idea that I was moving into the old artistic and literary center of the southern Central Coast. Two centers existed, the Theosophical Halcyon community and the Dunites, bohemians living in the dunes and their associates living close by in Oceano. The avant-garde musician, Henry Cowell, teacher of John Cage, lived in Halcyon for a while. A few of us attempt to carry on their wide universal vision.
Beginning in 1977, I became very active in local environmental issues leading to four primary concerns: nuclear power, Chumash sacred site protection, pesticide use and marine environment protection. Beginning in 2013 I began what became a six year research and writing project, A History of Visual Text Art. 
Abstract art as first expressed was philosophically and also psychologially sourced differently before than after WW1. Before WW1 the avant-garde, generally speaking, was creating works to change consciousness, to raise it for a higher form of society. Some were utopian efforts such as those associated with Henri-Martin Barzun.
Stepping outside the dominant world culture, American First People call English a trader’s language and the enemy’s language. Within the American First People ways is the notion all living forms are relatives. Many land and water entities are sacred. And many point to the disease of the dominant culture: not thinking with the heart and the huge void in the heart caused by spiritual alienation.
You and I have some obvious differences in focus, chosen influences and directions. Regarding “My body is a thing among things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world and its cohesion is that of a thing.” Merleau-Ponty was influenced by the multiplicity theories of Henri Bergson, if I understand correctly. I admit no knowing his works. Merleau-Ponty use of multiplicity differed from Bergson. Barzun also used it differently creating his Simultanisme, scores of many voices in order to better express the new urban complexities than a single voice was unable to capture. Can this be seen also as using a space unrealized and yet in his intent a space imagined with a higher possibility? 

dm: Yes, I see your connection. Barzun was thinking the world differently, a possible world yet to be realised.

weneverstoodapart is an attempt to look at our current ecological situation from within the multiplicity — the biosphere. What is it to be a symbiotic being entangled with other symbiotic beings—to become with each other?

Something that has been on my mind recently. Indigenous cultures retain their psychological and spiritual connections. They connect, see and experience the spirits that inhabit their worlds. Because the Scientific world view cannot correlate these beliefs and experiences it dismisses them as primitive. You mention your work with the Chumash. This surely just comes down to belief systems and how human beings culturally access things. No single story has precedent over another.

Sumbioûn I, II & III. 2018/19. ballpoint pen on paper inverted

kk: Further, at least among the traditionalists of North America, all living entities are accepted as relatives, and all life forms have spirits or souls which is why hunting rituals before and after take place, to first ask for giving themselves and afterwards a thanksgiving and a preparedness to the next life on this plane . . .

dm: I would like to bring in the image of a "psychological tear” — and how it connects to Barzun. The idea that nature is something “over there” or apart from us that we access when we feel the need. For me the psychological tear is the disconnect from our own ecological being. Of feeling disconnected and experiencing separation from ourselves and other living beings.

kk: The term a “psychological tear” is one I wished I had coined. My attempts to understand it have been ongoing for years, leading me to look outside Western culture for a solution. The causes are many and complex. Philosophical choices made from Western Asia to the Atlantic and North Sea from circa 600 BCE to the present in the history of the religious directions taken and not taken shaped and continues to shape group thinking and behavior. We are what we believe and, perhaps deeper, we are how we behave.

Before we get to Barzun, I want to mention Zoroaster, who is from ancient Persia. Before him, time was understood/felt to be circular. He invented the idea, now taken for granted throughout dominant culture, that time is linear. He also invented the concept of history. History (in his case and perhaps evermore) being the story of the combat between the brotherhood of light, the chosen, and the brotherhood of darkness, the other, and after the final battle history ends. He, however, was speaking internally, the chosen being those who realized that their “I“ was not the ego but the divine form with its many aspects, one of which was the glue holding the many together. As usual the spiritual / mystical teaching became literal. The four monotheistic religions share this rooted in the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews eventually passed onto the Christian and then Islamic dogma. The dogmas at times became monomaniacal.
When discussing the Inquisition, one generally assumes the horrors perpetrated in Western Europe, not the destruction during the 4th through 6th centuries of the Greek Hellena culture. That ended philosophers as lovers of wisdom within the Christian zone of influence. That ended also scientific pursuits and rational thought until the supposed end of the Dark Ages (did we ever free ourselves of it?). The ruthless practice of conversion throughout Europe is well-known, destroying traditional ways in which alienation from nature is nonexistent. That was continued later throughout the conquest of the Americas and elsewhere. Biblical authority overrode the natural laws respected by matriarchal societies, Mother Nature. It was genocide led by Christians, the so-called Chosen.
In the mid 19th century there is the rise of science, “rational” philosophy, and Marxism. All three, generally speaking again, remained caught in the idea of being the Chosen, though unaware — which I contend is the root of racism and the assumed inferiority of the Other, the traditional cultures that were destroyed, or left barely surviving.
Even Marxism’s cosmology — though not its important political economic critique of Capitalism — is a rewrite of the myth of the chosen people in the Old Testament and the saved believers, again the chosen ones, from the New Testament. Switch revolution to arrival of the Messiah (OT) or the Second Coming (NT). Switch chosen to proletariat. Replace heaven on earth and the rapture to end of history and the proletariat’s paradise. The Marxian first half of its linear historical conveyor belt directing human history and its development from hunting and gathering to “primitive” agrarian communal agriculture was based on and cribbed from Morgan, (also cited by Darwin) an American archaeologist who projected and misinterpreted the historical facts surrounding Chaco Canyon (New Mexico), its rise and fall leading to the Pueblos’ supposed ideal communism. The second half of this history of development jumped to “Old world” economic “progress”because being the racist he was, First Peoples of North America were unable to “evolve” beyond chiefdoms. Careless and reckless Capitalist and Communist (both ideologies of the self-selected “chosen,” with the butchery of millions on their hands) means of production have caused global warming.
So this has been a long detour. Back to Barzun and the avant-garde. The avant-garde after WW1 changed directions for numerous reasons, most of all because of post-traumatic reaction after a devastating war, and materialism among intellectuals caused by reactions against and acceptance of Marxism. Existence of the higher realms of consciousness were increasingly denied in Eurocentric thinking. Even Jung during his visit to India in the late 1930s refused to meet enlightened masters fearing “contamination” of his scientific theories. He was told in the 1920s by a Navajo medicine healer of the White man’s disease of thinking with mind not heart.
But Barzun is different, which is why he was out of step with his time, Post-WW1. He strove for harmony, not dissonance. Where other artists made a jagged juxtaposition between the forces in their world, he tried to make a chorus. It’s why he’s fascinating, this creator of visual-poetic epics that have scarcely been seen and yet are amongst the most beautiful poems of the 20th Century. 
And like you he was a maker of books, the vessels to carry his visions. And like him, you find connection, harmony, between dichotomy, the digital and the analogue, and you use that to ask wider questions than your traditions allow.
Eurocentric Philosophers still no longer search for the answer to “Who am I?” Sufis, yogis, ch’an / zen Buddhists and many traditionalists continue this work within their established and evolving ways. Our mainstream philosophers deny the upper realms. Eurocentric philosophy also failed to foresee and still fails to address the climate crisis caused by global warming. In fact, it aids and abets the perpetrators. Postmodern speculation allows all narratives equal weight through false relativism (for that is Postmodern reality, all is narrative) — meaning, for example, anti-global climate change propaganda has equal weight to scientific fact. This is the “psychological tear”. I would rather stand with the First People, the Chumash, the Other, the living Earth. And actually, it is a false dichotomy. As you say, weneverstoodapart.

From continued readings on Platonic philosophy’s higher realms another aspect of the “tear” can be seen in the disregard for the intertwined Good and Beauty after WW1. Works of beauty come from artists, poets, writers and other creators because of character and beneficial. good behavior. In South Asian terms, one is a follower of the Dharma. This is integral to most of the contemporary Sufi based word painter works. The same ideals are found in South Asian writings on aesthetics. It is also found in Ch’an / Zen. So here, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, an off the cuff relativism, if the eye is untrained. Works of art, then, at the highest ideal, become footnotes along the Eurocentric seldom traveled path “Who am I?”. 
As early as my 2005 article on visual poetry, I have been promoting this idea under the rubric of Orphic works, work that provides the reader / viewer nourishment, promotes a higher consciousness or awareness for social betterment contrary to the works showcasing the ugly for shock or other works made only for reputation and ego aggrandizement. Patchen was part of the initial list; Barzun of course is now part of it. Your work I would add.