Alex Bennett: What made you want to write your first book? Was there a consistent idea that initiated your thinking about Vzszhhzz, or was the impetus found by chance?
Jeanne Graff: I never wanted to be a writer or to write a book, it happened by accident. I was writing these short stories for my friends as press releases for our shows that I was self publishing in little books. I met Sylvère [Lotringer] at a talk in Paris in summer 2014 and we started exchanging right at the moment I was writing the first little book—the chapter with the bar and the boxing with Anne Dressen and Anne Imhof—so I sent it to him and he said, ‘It’s good you should write more, what’s happening next?’ I was ready I guess but just needed a small encouragement—he felt that, so he did. The day after I started writing the second chapter. And so on. And at some point it became a book.
AB: Along with your work at 186f Kepler, you also performed with your band Solar Lice. I’m curious how this background with music shaped your approach to language, its rhythm and composition and, likewise, if this influenced your approach to form?
JG: When we did the album and the Haggard Caravan tour with Solar Lice in 2013, Stefan Tcherepnin made me sing. And the moment I heard my voice for the first time it was like a shock. It woke me up. When I compose my writings, all throughout the book, and still today, I listen to Stefan and to Juliana’s [Huxtable] music a lot.
AB: The tone of Vzszhhzz is reminiscent of Bernadette Corporation’s Reena Spaulings; perhaps the biggest difference between these is that Reena Spaulings is devoted to the struggle to escape identity. The Reenas are multiples, supposedly authored by 150 writers and a disavowal of identity, whereas Vzszhhzz seems concerned with communication, exploring the languages of others through oblique encounters which are particularly attentive to multiculturalism. The interactions are immediate, perhaps autobiographical, but the tone has the capacity to temper that intimacy. Can you tell me about your decision in terms of tone and style?
JG: My writing is very precise. What I choose to speak about, who I give the voice to, the transitions, the rhythms. And it’s simple. I want it to be easy to understand and fun to read. People who like to make other people feel uneasy, unintelligent by using references they don’t know: you don’t want to do that. Intellectually, I share a lot with Juliana and Sylvère. My writing doesn’t come from a pre-established system, I let it be shaped by the times we live in, the cities, the weather, and above all from all these fabulous people I meet. You can say much more by not saying too much and I don’t want to explain it too much but never take decisions or plan in advance what I’m going to write about. You shut up and listen first. You let yourself be shaped by the world. It’s a very particular and precise technique that I’ve developed all these years. And I’m realising many things about all this recently, in discussion with Jim Fletcher.
AB: Though we move through these portraits, the book is largely characterised by portraying the city, its transience and situations, the weather. Fog is clearly an atmospheric example here: ‘…the air is like a pill.’ I’m interested in the place that fog takes us to. In the final chapters of Vzszhhzz, the environment breaks down formal arrangements of logic. Would you consider your book as a model of your world, or does it also (like fog) model the world as a tabula rasa?
JG: The weather is a very important part of the world. So I speak about it in the book.
AB: I’m curious about you as lead narrator? Your presence is not quite as explicit as other individuals in the book.
JG: It’s through my eyes and through my ears so I’m there all the time and I give place to others all the time, it’s both.
AB: You have been involved in many different things—columnist for May Revue, working in a vineyard, teacher at HEAD in Geneva, founder of 186k Kepler. Vzszhhzz reflects this. How would you consider your work influences your process as a writer? How have you seen it develop after Vzszhhzz?
JG: I always work and I never work. This I’ve learned from John Armleder.
AB: Vzszhhzz is also a highly mobile work, which threads many ephemeral intersections; the travel feels almost constant and at times highly claustrophobic, personal, anecdotal. Through these travels, including Beijing, New York, Paris, have you encountered some split in the conception of the self?
JG: It describes a world, cities, languages whose shape, frontiers, architecture are not still and this influences us all.
AB: I’m thinking of the recourse to the individual responsibility to ‘deal with a crisis’, the ‘tools’ of ‘active listening’ and ‘mind mapping’. It reminds me of the current technological revival of eugenics via DNA testing platforms that epitomise neo-liberal logic: ‘A person who doesn’t train is a person who is losing.’ There is also a highly articulate reflection on sex and masochism through Juliana. In both occasions it reads as seamless, almost sociable. Was there a concern to deliver critique in a way that becomes sociable, which can rely on alternative forms of information (gossip, anecdote, conversation)?
JG: Juliana is one of the closest people to me in many ways, and for a long time. We share a lot politically and intellectually. And we both think that sexuality, men and women speaking openly and in a proud way of their own sexuality and fantasies is important. Sexuality is an important part of the world, so it’s in the book. Juliana is with me in many parts of the book. And I also love the way she speaks. I learned English while I was writing the book and language is a very important part of it. Juliana is a genius in everything she does. Many people don’t realise how what they say is so interesting and smart, how beautiful and elegant they are, and that night when she told me her story I was so touched that I wrote it down for her and gave it to her the day after; and she just wrote me back a beautiful text. It wasn’t planned.
AB: In light of this, do you see similarities in approach from your work as a columnist at the May Revue, to, say, your pamphlet-like books which exist as extracts of Vzszhhzz? I’m curious about how the change in circulation and form may influence your content.
JB: I love doing the column for May. Catherine [Chevalier] encouraged my writing from the beginning. Every person that is in the book and close to me in life influences me in one way or another, and so do I, it’s shared.
Vzszhhzz is published by Semiotext(e), Los Angeles.
Writer and curator Jeanne Graff was born in Lausanne, Switzerland and lives in New York. She is a columnist for May Revue (Paris), works in a vineyard, and teaches at HEAD art school in Geneva. In 2014, Graff founded 186f Kepler, an art space without walls. She has organised numerous international exhibitions, and performs with her band Solar Lice. Graff recently completed a writing residency at Villa Noailles in Hyeres, France.