JOHN DUNCAN

Interview by Boris Wlassoff for revue & corrigée (numéro 51, Mars 2002)
Translations by Thierry Bokhobza
December 2001 to January 2002 (Scrutto di San Leonardo, Italy / Stockholm, Sweden)



I know very few - maybe even no writing traces on your work in French. So if you don't mind, let's start by a question on your origins and your formation, for us to know where you come from; so what are your "roots"?

Born in Wichita, Kansas, the first child in a religious Calvinist family that settled in Texas and Kansas after coming to the US from Scotland and England several generations earlier. We moved every year or so to different cities in the Midwest until I entered high school, then back to Wichita. Studied painting with Betty Dickerson, who taught color theory and psychology, sacred geometry, and gave me an appetite for seeking beauty in the moment of learning, which has become fundamental to everything I've done since. Left home at 19 to attend CalArts, outside Los Angeles, on a suggestion by David Salle. At CalArts I heard a lot of experimental music, and read everything I could find on Viennese Aktionismus and Jerzy Grotowsky's theatre work, which inspired me to abandon painting to focus on events and acts held directly with an audience (later called 'performance'). After studying there for about 18 months I moved to LA.

Altogether I lived and worked there for about 10 years. For the first year I lived on the street in East Hollywood, in storefront studios. After that I moved to Pasadena and met Barbara Smith, Paul McCarthy and Tom Recchion. Tom introduced me to an entire spectrum of sound, patiently playing one record after another, really opened my head about what music could be. Barbara inspired me to use art to focus on developing as a human being.

Was the fact you met Paul McCarthy determinant? Why? Have you worked together, under which form?

Paul was one of my closest friends. We often talked for hours, shared ideas about projects and plans, about what we felt art was and could be, about how the art world's pressure to make work that sells introduces false values into the work and distorts the most important qualities that art has, about how he was determined to make art that couldn't be bought or sold. We participated in several of each other's events, taking photos or being a direct part of the action.

For three years we co-produced an FM radio show called CLOSE RADIO. The original idea came from a call I made to the radio station to ask about programs that broadcast audio by artists. When the director told me there wasn’t one and asked if I wanted to volunteer my time, I said yes. Paul heard about this and said he wanted to be part of the program, so we agreed to produce it together. At the first meeting, the station director encouraged us to be ‘professional’ on the air, that listeners wanted to hear a ‘voice of authority’… which gave us further inspiration to effectively put absolute control of the broadcast in the hands of people who had never had it: artists, social interest groups, to the listeners themselves, nearly always to people who had little or no prior experience in front of a microphone.

Our esthetic priorities are obviously very different now. Still, I've learned a number of things from our shared experiences and I'm glad to have worked with him when I did.

In the mid 60's, Burroughs wrote "Electronic Revolution" to propose methods of contaminations of social statements with simple recorders. Are you interested in this idea, as your work has a lot to do with technology, or do you prefer a less political approach, more anthropological and psychological?

The idea is interesting, and sometimes it takes deliberately disruptive acts to make situations visible or cause changes, but in general I’m attracted to a more positive approach to it. Instead of causing confusion just for the sake of screwing things up, which as I understand is more or less what Burroughs had in mind, I prefer the tactic of using the sense of disorientation to encourage people to become more aware in some way.

In a sense, the TVC 1 project had this aspect. TVC 1 was pirate television that broadcast with no fixed schedule over the frequency of NHK 1 (state-owned TV in Tokyo), after NHK‘s signoff (always shortly after midnight). TVC 1 was always broadcast over a channel that was supposed to be off the air, seen by people who didn’t expect to see anything but video noise. TVC 1 always showed images that NHK could not or would not put on the air. Each broadcast was made with portable equipment that I set up and operated from the roofs of Tokyo apartment buildings, timed to allow for packing up all the equipment and getting away before the police could pinpoint my location. Everything including the transmitter, antenna and video player fit in a briefcase, to make it possible to catch a late train or subway inconspicuously.

These broadcasts were made every 30 days or so for about 18 months. Each was unique, and reached a minimum potential audience of 30,000 people. The Rudolf Schwarzkogler broadcast was the first time his work had been seen in Japan, let alone the rest of Asia. Another broadcast showed a nude couple, in the afterglow of sex in a love hotel, playing with a video camera that they thought was private. Others showed experimental music and video by Japanese artists (including O’Nancy In French, two musicians who played amplified oil barrels by setting up feedback and changing its pitch by lightly touching the barrels at key points with one finger), adult videos, documentaries. It was important that the images have a non-professional, 'homemade' quality, to contrast the high-tech corporate image of regular NHK broadcasts. It was equally important that TVC 1 always came on the air when NHK had stopped broadcasting, that it never interrupted regularly scheduled NHK programs -- to offer more, rather than interrupt what was already available.

Do you mind if we talk about "BLIND DATE", a famous 80's action which went very far in the practice of profanation/purgation of the body and society. How did you present formally the result of this action, and what significance did you give to it?

An audience was invited to a small warehouse space in downtown LA, an old triangular brick building with a tiny balcony at one end, no windows, no chairs, one exit. A microphone, cassette player, amp and speakers were set up on the balcony. When the exit door was closed and the lights were switched off, I described the process of finding the cadaver, receiving a vasectomy shortly afterward, and why I was making the action public, then played the audiotape recording of the session with the cadaver. When the tape ended, the door was opened and people could see to leave.

It seems to me that it was an action even more radical than [Chris] Burden's wound in "Shoot" because it affected you forever, propulsing art in reality as a limit-action tracing the borders of what was tolerable in an intolerable society, like a purging of collective evil. Do you agree?

I agree that it's shown a truth about the society it comes from. One irony is that, at least for me personally, that's turned out to be perhaps the least important of its results. One thing BLIND DATE has in common with "Shoot" is that both events turned out a lot different than either of us planned. Burden fully expected the marksman's shot to miss, and went into shock when he realized he was actually wounded. I expected to make a one-dimensional social situation visible, and ended up passing through a gate that's given knowledge I could never have imagined.

The COUM presentation at LAICA, and the description G.P-Orridge gives of it in Re-Search, settle the limits of what is acceptable by society and the world of art in real practices of purgation. P-Orridge says among other things that Burden, who was present, said, "From what I was given to see, those people are sick!" How was BLIND DATE received by the world of art?

With hostility, to a degree I was completely unprepared for. Several of my closest friends tried to arrange for me to be extradited to Mexico and arrested on necrophilia charges. When that effort proved to be legally formidable, they decided to threaten anyone publishing or showing my work with boycotts, which effectively banned my work in the US for several years. With other friends, it created a sense of separation, a wall that in some cases still remains. I felt, and was, abandoned by every one of the people I felt closest to. Some claimed that the cadaver had been raped, that the fact that the body was apparently Mexican meant that my action was racist, the fact that the body was female meant that the action was sexist, etc., etc., to the point of surreal comedy.

This was an important lesson. It taught me that each of us has a psychic limit. When something puts sudden stress on that limit and has no apparent context we can use to 'frame' it, we instinctively resist. Because our resistance isn't based on reason, any attempt we make to try to explain our resistance logically, or morally, will sound absurd, just as these claims of rape, racism or sexism were and are absurd. At the same time it's as real as anything else, so it's just as absurd to criticize anyone with such a limit as being personally or socially 'weak'.

Fortunately these limits can be expanded or overcome in a number of ways, using a variety of means including art. The relative acceptance of BLIND DATE now is just one of many, many examples of this that can be found throughout art history. This ability to open and expand people's minds is one of the things that gives art its value, makes it worth doing despite the psychic toll it might take on the maker.

You’ve evoked Rudolf Schwarzkogler in one of your videos (TVC 1 Tokyo Ghost Broadcasts). I would say this is a theraputistic artist who conciliates formal and informal, commitment and distancing by his control of very strong esthetic apparatuses; "IF ONLY WE COULD TELL YOU (THE BLACK ROOM)" is one of your works that reminds me of Schwarzkogler. Does such a work have a curative function? Can you describe that and tell us something about it?

Art as therapy was a key issue in the manifesto Schwarzkogler wrote on his esthetic. Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Jerzy Grotowsky were easily the most influential artists on my earliest work. From the beginning, I've been trying to find a way to create an art event or experience that would happen for each participant, the maker and the viewer, at the same moment… and these guys' work had an immense, lasting impact.

Generally my work from that time was intended to focus on a social situation and make it visible, by making it somehow personal for each viewer. "IF ONLY WE COULD TELL YOU (THE BLACK ROOM)" was an installation for an event festival called "Public Spirit". The installation was set up in one room of a former transients' flophouse called the American Hotel. The entire room was painted black. The closet was padlocked shut and made a constant, painfully loud rattling noise caused by something unseen (an electric sander mounted to the door inside). A framed, typewritten page hung on the opposite wall with this text:

We hate you little boy. We hate you little boy. We hate you little boy. We hate you little boy. We hate you little boy. We hate you little boy. We hate you little boy. We hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you hate you. We saw you all covered with our blood. We saw you piss and shit all over yourself. We cleaned you up, put food in your fucked-up little mouth. We kept you alive, you ungrateful little bastard. We gave you our tit whenever you wanted it, you little bloodsucker. We taught you everything you know. We always knew you'd be ungrateful. We always knew you'd be half-human baggage. You're a blight on our lives; we're tired of putting up with you. Ugly little body with the sex exposed. You're utterly disgusting. How can you possibly live with yourself. You're taking up our air, you little grease-spitter. Just look at the mess you've made of everything. Look at all the horror. Every bit of it is your fault. A dog could have done a better job. We should have put a pillow over your face when we had the chance. We always knew you'd be a stunted growth, a walking turd, just like the rest of your kind. Why don't you do everyone a favor and kill yourself. We love a man in uniform. Die, you tit-sucking zombie. Wounded men are so romantic. Go out and blow your head off, prick. We are fed up. Just go out and die. DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE

How and why did you later approach pornography? Did you do it for personal reasons or as an analysis of this particular genre?

The chance to do this came directly from the generosity of Nobuyuki Nakagawa. Nakagawa was a pioneer in the Japanese adult video industry, who'd made his first adult films while studying filmmaking with Terayama Shuuji. When his production house KUKI became successful, Nakagawa also focused his attention on producing art works that raised social issues, under the label B-Sellers. One B-Sellers product was called "Scene", a series of printed photos of murder scenes taken from police archives; another was PLEASURE-ESCAPE, a cassette-book with a recording of BLIND DATE and MOVE FORWARD on the cassette, several of my collages, a brilliant Japanese-English word-association interview by Hitomi Komukai, and an interview by Paul McCarthy that we'd made the night before I left LA. All B-Sellers products were sold throughout Japan, in bookstores that were the Japanese equivalent to Virgin megastores here in Europe.

Nakagawa also knew about the film and video collages I was making with adult images, and as an experiment invited me to direct a series of porn videos of my own. With the agreement that I would be free to use the material (and subvert it) in video collages, I accepted.

Directing commercial porn videos was very instructive, a great experience. There were alot more rules than I expected. Japanese censors insisted on having a storyline, so I wrote narrative scripts. Most people featured in porn films are terrible at acting, so the scripts either called for the actors to improvise or had no dialogue whatsoever. The audiences obviously insisted on seeing a specific percentage of nudity and sex in each film -- one reason why porno films, like their formula-following Hollywood counterparts, are so often so simplistic and linear.

Being in a porn video was considered sort of cool, and attracted talented people. Japanese censorship boards insisted that any clear shots of penetration be blocked, so actors weren't required to perform actual sex. One actress genuinely loved everyone involved on the set, and had a sensual charisma that came through in every scene; another was a professional race car driver who used her fees to pay her mechanics, etc. One of my favorite actors was about 50, an incredibly warm and gentle man, who felt threatened by physical contact with a woman and could get an erection only by watching uncensored porn on a TV screen.

The production side of the Japanese porn industry was outside the influence of the Yakuza as far as I could tell. Several technicians in the crew were film school graduates who'd found the industry hierarchies impossible to enter into, so the quality of the image, lighting and special effects was always quite high.

In "AIDAYUKI PASSION" that you made in 1985 in Japan, which seems to me an important pornographic film about pornography, you show money, the violence of social relations as a field of desire and in spite of this, the film is far more exciting than a classic porno because it's raw and true. What do you think about it?

I've always thought pornography is interesting because it acts as a mirror, emphasizes social characteristics that people prefer to deny, to refuse to accept in themselves. Making these films offered a chance to play with that, to make deliberate social comments, cast women in positions of control or power that are denied to them there. It was also a chance to encourage the actors to do things they wanted to do but normally wouldn't.

More... on sound and ritual, more activities in Tokyo, 'scouring onesself useless'