Berkeley Talks transcript: Artist Paul Chan on the ‘Bather’s Dilemma’

Timothy Hampton: My name’s Timothy Hampton, I’m the director of the Townsend Humanities Center and it’s a great pleasure to welcome you to this year’s Una’s Lecture. Before I introduce our speaker I like to say a little bit about the Una’s Lecture. So Una’s Lectures were endowed by Mr. Edward Hunter Ross of Princeton, New Jersey in 1969 in honor of his late wife, Una Smith Ross. The Una’s gift endowment which has been administered by the Townsend Center since its founding in 1987, supports an annual lecture series that brings distinguished visiting scholars and artists and personalities and the humanities to the Berkeley campus.

Una Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in 1911 and a master’s in 1913, both from UC Berkeley. Upon graduating, she worked in a San Francisco settlement house and she later taught history in the South Dakota and Arizona public schools. And I’d like to read a quote from her husband, Edward Hunter Ross that seems to sum up a lot of things — not only about the Una’s Lectures, but about the world in general, and I quote, “Universities have a basic obligation to develop the intellects committed to their guidance. Deeper understanding of human beings and their achievements can contribute to this as can fresh interpretations of the motives of ancient heroes and villains. Keener analysis of accepted tenets and dogmas reawakened appreciation for ignored and forgotten forms of beauty and regrouping of old facts to reach new conclusions.”

Una had some such thoughts in mind when she remarked that an educated person is one who knows some things that don’t help her or him in making a living. Never gets old. I hope Una’s Lectures will aim not at providing practical advice or at improving the world but rather at opening the individual mind. That’s an astonishing statement.

So, let me, before I launch into an introduction, say a couple of practical things, first of all, our guest, Paul Chan, tomorrow will be doing a second event at the same time in the Townsend Center in the Gibal room in the Townsend Humanities Center in 220 Stephens Hall which is next to the Campanile. It’s one of the condemned buildings on campus and he’ll be in conversation tomorrow at 5 p.m., so please come to that event as well. That’s the first practical detail, the second practical detail is that at the end of the hour, we’ll have some questions, Paul’s agreed to take some questions and since we’re recording this event future generations will thank you if you wait until a microphone is passed to you before you speak because otherwise you will be forgotten in the dusts of history so that’s the protocol for the end of the hour.

As you may have noticed, these are exceptional times and exceptional times produce exceptional artists. Artists to question the limits of what we thought art was, opening new possibilities for expression and creativity. We’re particularly fortunate in this regard to be welcoming Paul Chan to Berkeley. Artist, filmmaker, writer, activist and publisher to name but a few professional labels one could link to his name, Chan has worked across media and forms generating a body of work that is both innovative in nature and marked by a deep ethical and political vision. He works in everything from collage to film to the essay. His work has been featured in solo shows in the Serpentine Gallery in London and The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He’s been included in major exhibitions at the Venice Biennale and the Whitney biennial and his work resides in MOMA in New York as well as in the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2014 he was awarded the Hugo Boss prize by the Guggenheim Foundation which is given to an artist who has made a visionary contribution to contemporary art.

But beyond these honors and names, what is particularly compelling about Paul Chan’s work is its currency. He is an exemplar of the artist as activists and as the activist as artist, engaged in topics related to democracy, inequality, violence and war. We don’t yet know whether he plans any work on the question of the northern California energy grid but we can hope. His publishing enterprise, Badland Books is a recognized force in avant-garde publishing, publishing everything from Calvin Tompkinsons’ conversations with Marcel Duchamps to a series of erotic novels called, New Lovers and next spring, Paul says there’s going to be a book about Wittgenstein that’s going to be coming out. His work in the theater includes his production of waiting for Godot in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina and last and certainly not least he’s a thoughtful and engaged reader of philosophy and the classics. So tonight his Una’s lecture is titled, “The Bather’s Dilemma.” Please join me in welcoming Paul Chan to Berkeley.

Paul Chan: It’s great to be here. I want to thank Timothy and Rebecca and Colleen and Alex and everyone at the Townsend for making me feel at home here in Berkeley, I’m glad the light’s on. Jim Porter, who’s a part of the force that got me here was worried about my breathing because I constantly talk about my ailments including my asthma. But I’m fine, it smells like a campfire here and I really like it. I also wanna thank Jim Porter. I’ve been steeped in the world of antiquity for some time now, for, I think, seven or eight years and I have no right being there, but I do love, I have a peculiar fondness for philosophy. It’s what I read in bathrooms and I veered into the world of classic philosophy and the culture of antiquity in general seven or eight years ago and Jim’s been a real guiding light in how I see what to see in the world of the past and I’m grateful for your friendship and your guiding light.

Also I want to plan out, also very well-renowned classicist here, the world famous Alexandra Pappas. Also, I worked with her for a book that I published a year and a half ago called Odysseus and the Bathers, where she did a sterling translation of Parmenides. So, I thank you for being here, professor Pappas.

Tonight I am going to deliver a piece of text I wrote for this, it’s called the Bather’s Dilemma. The Bather’s Dilemma is the title, also, of my show that closed recently in New York at Greenif Tulley Gallery. It opened in September and it just closed maybe a week ago. It’s also related to something I did at the Guggenheim this year, this year for its 60th anniversary, the Guggenheim Museum asked six artists to curate from their permanent collection six shows on their ramps and I was one of the artists and my ramp is called Sex, Water, Salvation or What Is a Bather.

And so, I chose works that had something to do with water or bathing from their permanent collection. I also made them put down a incredibly deep blue piece of carpet on my ramp which I think is beautiful. I’d been thinking about the bathers for a long time. Long, I don’t know, three or four years, all my work has revolved around it and so tonight’s text is really about the question, why. It surprises me as much as anyone else I would pay attention to something like the bathers. I’m not a very good swimmer. I have asthma so I can’t really swim anyways. I’d rather eat a shoe than get wet, frankly. So, it’s surprising to me that I think about the bathers.

But what I want to share with you tonight is the reason why, cool, great. The Bather’s Dilemma.

Needs. In late 2013, I stumbled into developing a series of artworks I called Breathers, constructed largely out of nylon fabric, each breather is attached to a fan which sits either on the floor or is mounted on a wall. When the fan is on, the fabric body fills with air like a balloon or one of those giant and colorful tube men ecstatically gyrating at used car dealerships and shopping mall parking lots. But unlike the tube men, each breather is animated with a specific choreography in mind. The internal structure of each breather is designed to generate a unique blend of aerodynamic forces like lift, drag and turbulence which governs how it moves. I call it folk engineering.

Over the past four or five years with what feels like an endless number of trials and errors, these peculiar works began to take shape. I sometimes call them clothing for spirits. Sometimes I have nicknames for them. These two are Eric and Don. Don J. The catalyst for each breather is a movement or set of movements I want to recall. It may be a rhythm or the mannerisms of someone I care about or the gestures from a performance that stuck with me or maybe even something I ran into on the street that I found funny or tragic. The challenge then is to compose a work that allows itself to be animated simply by the air blowing from a fan. Some breathers took over 40 prototypes for the movement to appear. The breathers must be abstract if they are to move with any real significance, the geometric shapes of what might not only be referred to as legs or arms or hips, all serve as a means to manipulate air flow within the fabric shell so it can swoon or sway or shake. How a figure functions primarily as a medium of movement became increasingly more important as research and development went on.

It was this need that led me to the motif of the bather. The bather in art history has a long and storied pedigree. What I was interested in was how this motif inspired a few artists to experiment with new ways to depict a human form that took into account movement in different ways. I have no place to put these so I’m just gonna throw them on the floor. Take Cezanne bathers, for instance. They look inflated to me. As if everyone was filled with a mysterious substance that both subtly streamlines and elongates their bodies. The poses and postures they exhibit situate them in such a way that the trees, the river, the sky, even a dirt ground, all to some degrees seem to slightly warp in their presence. It is as if the bathers exerted an invisible distortion field that bends and pushes everything around them. This is, I think, what gives his Cezanne’s bather paintings an eerie feeling of movement.

It was with Cezanne that I began to imagine the breathers as bathers. This is a work that was directly inspired by the large bathers by Cezanne. But it was with Matisse that the bathers came into their own. In works like Bathers with a Turtle and Bathers by a River, the silhouettes announced the presence of a human figure without having to slavishly represent one. I respect the economy and the dexterity of the lines. The cutouts of late Matisse are also exemplary models for how a certain spirit of abstraction can conjure shapes into likenesses of figures without ever appearing as anything other than what they are: cut pieces of paper. They also hold remarkable insights about what shapes make work well as moving three dimensional forms. This is not a coincidence.

In Notes of a Painter, written by Matisse in 1908, he described how he wanted to seize movement in a meaningful way so that “A more lasting interpretation can be captured from the fleetingness of sensations and moments.” There’s a well-documented correspondence between Cezanne and Matisse, so it’s not surprising that Matisse’s aesthetic ambitions correspond with what Cezanne was arguably trying to achieve with his bathers. Reinvent an old motif that largely served to celebrate voyeurism and sexual objectification by reimagining the human figure defined my movement and other bodily qualities.

It is notable that the criticism lodged against both artists at that time was more or less the same. They made people look ugly and deformed. I also want to deform the figure to embody movement. At least that’s what I thought I wanted but the more I worked on my bathers and the deeper I thought about the bather’s motif, it began to dawn on me that something else was at play. There were other qualities that drew me there. Because let’s face it, the bathers motif does not have a monopoly on abstract figurations. Art history is full of examples of artists radically reconfiguring the human body in virtually every motif imaginable and in ways that are worthy of consideration and yet it was the bathers that held my attention most. Why?

I’m not an art historian, so I am far from sure, but the bathers I was drawn to never seem to be hurt or afraid or angry or debilitated with dread. I stumbled upon a genre of art that portrays a species of humanity I don’t see much of these days. I mean people who are not mentally or physically suffering from the overwhelming structural inequities that bring such meaningless and arbitrary pain and misery. Bathers in art exhibit a kind of composure that speaks of being at ease with oneself. They look please by simply being, enlivened by their surroundings or by each other, enjoying themselves without guilt, aggression or fear of being judged. Perhaps above all, looking at works about bathers reminded me of what it feels like to be renewed. Not everyone might find this feeling in or near a river, some lake or the open sea but I think we can agree that water represents a source of life, an instrument of cleansing and a means of regeneration in virtually all cultures. This is why I so strongly correlate the bathers motif with the notion of renewal. What began as a formal study of abstraction and movement became more open ended.

Thinking about bathers touched a nerve that was sensitive to a need I didn’t realize was in me. I needed some way to think about whether pleasure has a place in these punishing times and whether our capacity for pleasing and being pleased has any bearing on how we renew ourselves to better meet what genuine appeals of progress asks of us.

Senses. My favorite literary account of bathing comes from the Sacred Tales by Aristides, the second century Greco-Roman author and orator. The tales are told in six books and is in essence a memoir of Aristides being sick. His abdomen is constantly bothering him. He has trouble keeping food down. Pains flare up in his groin. It’s not clear if what ails him is real or imaginary. But what is undeniable is that he is suffering. Aristides bathes to try to heal himself. He even has dreams of bathing or not bathing depending on the commands of Aesculapius, the god of healing, whom he worships.

In book two he writes about an experience that I wanna quote here: “In a pool of very gentle and tempered water, I passed my time swimming all about and splashing myself all over. When I came out, all my skin had a rosy hue and my body was comfortable everywhere. My mental state was nearly the same. For there was neither, as it were, conspicuous pleasures, nor would you say it was a human joy but there were certain inexplicable high spirits, which counted all things second to the present moment, so that when I saw other things, I seemed not to see them.”

What I appreciate is the fine-grained quality of how he describes what the bathing does to his mental state. Aristides reflects on how the rosy-hued comfort of being in the water attenuated his senses in ways that seemed to magnify their capacities, giving him greater powers of discernment to grasp what he’s feeling and thinking. It is as if he had gained a higher level of awareness in what he’s able to understand about himself. It is arguable that within the context of the Sacred Tales, the passage is really about how the god who Aristides worships has seen him fit to be healed.

Scholars suggest the “inexplicable high spirits” may not be Aristides feeling renewed by his experience in the water at all, but an imaginative literary account of divine forces entering his body and restoring him. This may be the case. But I want to suggest that it is still plausible to believe that Aristides could feel the way that he did after his bathing without supernatural intervention. Pleasure has the capacity to renew us in just the way Aristides describes. I want to also suggest that it is not plausible to believe a god healed Aristides, no matter how earnest or faithful he was in his worship.

How do we come to know what is plausible and what is not? I think we rely on our senses. We make inferences based on what our senses can discern from what are presented to us and from whether their presentations can be correlated what has been presented to us before. Sense experiences play decisive roles in how able we are to grasp what is worth attending to and what is good enough to merit our further consideration. In other words, the sensuousness of what is perceived is also what renders it intelligible to us. This is why I think it stands to reason that Aristides likely do not experience divine medical intervention. It makes more sense.

When we refer to our senses, we typically mean our capacities to see, hear, taste, smell and touch. What are generally agreed as the five common senses. But we possess more than five. Thermoception, for instance, is our sense of being able to tell if we feel hot or cold. Proprioception tells us the movement and position of parts of our body, whether or not the parts are in our line of sight. Hunger is a sense and is one of the one of the suite of other senses that tell us what is happening within us. Collectively these and other internal senses are known scientifically as interoception. Other interoceptive senses include those that detect changes in muscle tension, oxygen levels, the amount of salt and other foreign chemicals in our blood stream and stomach and intestinal discomfort. Interoception provides an integrated sense of the conditions inside us, it also makes available the capacity to ask with any real discernment the question, how do I feel.

Is it plausible that the question, “What do I think?” is also made available by the same interoceptive senses working with the five common senses to produce what we experience as thoughts? I think so. I understand a thought to be a product made for the purpose of further deliberation. The medium of a thought may be language or images which may be more typical for those who identify on certain spectrums of autism. However it is expressed, a thought is derived from the values of the stimuli registered by the interoceptive senses as a measure against and correlate with what is being perceived by the five common senses. A thought occurs as a form of management for the complex correlations arising from the input of all our senses. A thought orders these correlations and summarizes them, so to speak, into an aggregate expression of what is worthy enough to pay attention to in our mind in the form of words or pictures.

The distribution and makeup of the relations between the senses is what captures a thought most and how salient a thought is as it relates to past thoughts or what determines the power and quality of the thought itself. A feeling, I think, can be grasped in the same manner. A feeling is also a form of management for complex correlation secured from the information made available to us by our senses but the medium of its expression is somatic. Our body is where a feeling registers first.

Understood in these ways, what we call feelings and thoughts are essentially two aspects of the same underlying phenomenon. Our basic need to ascertain what is happening within us, to us and around us so we can better grasp and further deliberate what to do, how to better reason and judge and what to sensibly hope for in the future. The values of thoughts and feelings are lost if no one is able or willing to heed them. I think this is especially the case in regards to ourselves.

One of my peculiar habits is that I talk to myself all the time. I don’t think that this is that out of the ordinary but when I do it I have to move my mouth and mimic, if not altogether say the words of the conversation I’m having with myself. If you see me on the street, you may catch me talking in a stage whisper with no one around me and no phone anywhere near and you may think yourself, “He’s really off his meds, isn’t he?” I consider self-reflection to be a kind of conversation I have between me and myself. Like any longstanding friendship, we have disagreements and misunderstandings, even fights, but I cherish this friendship and I’ve done my best to nurture and maintain it. My well-being depends on it. The health of any friendship hinges on the quality of the conversations. Is one willing to lend an ear to the other about what is really going on? Is one capable of being open and frank about the thoughts and feelings being shared and be sensitive enough to use reason when called for? Or to judge a situation when necessary or to simply acknowledge what may be troubling the other in the spirit of wanting them to flourish and thrive as much as one hopes to?

I think about self-reflection in these terms and I consider thoughts and feelings the lingua franca that this inner friendship communicates with to keep up the relationship. Making up my mind means coming to an agreement between me and myself about what is worth attending to. What I call my mind may be nothing but this unity of experience. I don’t know whether you think of your mind as a meeting of multitudes. I don’t assume this model fits everyone. What I will say is that what I appreciate about imagine cognition like this is how it is framed as relationships and correlations that are constantly changing and in flux but not unknowable and it is not the certainty of what one knows but the reliability of how one knows it that matters most.

The concept of homeostasis refers to a dynamic and optimal state of equilibrium within a living system where its capacity to perform, function and maintain itself is at its highest. Our body’s natural regulatory processes are continually adjusting to try to reach this state. The ability to help ourselves reach homeostasis is grounded in how trustworthy our senses are regarding what they signal to us, our readiness to accept and heed those signals and to raise them in rank to a feeling or thought, a further deliberation is warranted. Pleasure, I want to suggest, encourages and facilitates homeostasis. Pleasure at its most apt relieves stressors and restores our capacity to be flexible and adaptive which may have been lost due to social, psychological or political forces pressuring us into rigid or depressive states. Genuine pleasure rejuvenates and like that perfect night of sleep. It has a clarifying quality as if one has emerged from a kind of cleansing. This sensation is stimulating and healing insofar as it helps renew us to more ably face what the day demands.

Epicurus is arguably who we should look to regarding pleasure, after all he’s the philosopher who wrote, “Pleasure is the starting point and good of living blessedly.” For Epicurus, a blessed life means one free of anxiety, pain and fear. And what alleviates these and other forms of suffering is pleasure but not every pleasure should be chosen. Epicurus is clear about how some bring more trouble than they are worth. What he describes as the pleasures of the profligate, like those embodied by the libertine. And pleasures of consumption, whether it’s excessive drinking or eating, may be pleasant but they unsteady us in ways that bring great turmoil. The pleasure that matter are those that don’t disturb our mind and body.

This is in part why Epicurus claimed that pleasure is only necessary when we are in pain. If we are not suffering, there’s no reason to enjoy pleasure. This is the purported site, it’s an empty lot in Athens. It’s completely interesting. There’s a port a potty on one end of the lot. Epicurus’ ideas about pleasure are some of the most robust and interesting in antiquity, but there’s also something hard hearted about him. This hard heartedness is best captured by considering his most well known maxim, that death is nothing to us. The idea is relatively simple: Living consists of sense experiences. When we are alive, death is not yet present, but when death takes us, we no longer exist. We don’t sense death because we are no longer alive to sense anything. That is why death is nothing to us.

What Epicurus is offering, I think, is praiseworthy. By claiming that death is nothing to us, he’s trying to free us from the heavy burden that comes from a fear of dying which can prevent us from being genuinely accountable and present to ourselves and others. But I wonder, as others have, whether inhabiting an attitude of indifference towards our own death is truly up to the task of defending us against the feeling of looming vulnerability that the threat of death brings.

There is also this, even if I do believe that death is nothing to me, I’m pretty sure that this is not the case for those who count me as family or care about me as a friend or work with me as a colleague. Even if death is nothing to me, my death is something for them. This is the core of what I consider the hard heartedness of Epicurus’ philosophy. The form of life he prizes is the self above all else. My life, my death, my anxiety, my pleasure. Epicurus advocates for a way of living that is broadly speaking, self-centered. This self-centered approach may be attractive to those looking for personal salvation, but it might be lost on those who suspect that a life worth living is one that is not lived alone. The same holds true for death, I think.

A death worth dying is not one that is died alone. A life is made more festive by the connections that are sought and found within it. Our capacity to forge substantive relations with people or animals or things or ideas, or even the past, reflects how or where we are or how willing we are to accept a basic precept. A life is made more dynamic, resilient and enlivening by virtue of others. The greater the quality and strength of our relations, the more they enlarge us in ways that safeguard against the very elements Epicurus believed diminished the living: anxiety, pain, fear of death. But the orientation for how this is achieved is different. An approach to living that is other centered looks outward rather than inward to realize what it’s worth being good so that we can find refuge, protection, even pleasure in the goodness.

I want to suggest that the notion of pleasure is best understood as a phenomenon born out of relations. And the relations where pleasure flourishes are those in which pleasing and being pleased freely flows. In fact, pleasing is how the joy of being pleased arises in the first place. Here, pleasure is rendered active, not passive. It becomes dynamic and adaptive. Not a thing to consume or possess, but a rapport one establishes. This is why the notion of pleasure I’m trying to picture may not be served by what Epicurus offers. His ideas on it are too utilitarian and self-centered.

But there is another concept he engaged that has a better fit with what I have in mind. It is a concept other thinkers and poets in antiquity and beyond has grappled with. It is friendship. Although paltry by comparison to the wealth of his thoughts on pleasure, Epicurus nevertheless was emphatic about friendship. He referred to it as an immortal good, meaning that it never varies in its goodness and is shared with the gods. In fact, for Epicurus, a good life largely meant living like a god or living that is absent of, and impervious, to pain and suffering and invulnerable to the hostility of others. Wouldn’t that be nice? This is what Epicurus means by the term “blessed.” As in when he claimed that “Friendship dances around the world announcing to all of us that we must wake up to blessedness.” Friendship was one of the great pleasures for Epicurus but only if it truly benefits us. A friend is how we gain advantage and protection. The pleasure of friendship is maximized when we get the greatest amount of help and loyalty out of our friends.

This self-centered quality that grips Epicurus’ thinking loosens somewhat when he considers other aspects of friendship. For instance, he writes “When the wise man is brought face to face with the necessities of life, he knows how to give rather than to receive.” Elsewhere he wrote, “Let us share, let us share our friend’s suffering not with laments but with thoughtful concern.” These intuitions about giving and sharing, being a part of friendship, and how they relate to pleasure is what I wish to focus on. But to do this, I want to consider someone more other centered and less concerned with being so invulnerable in life.

“Some men say an army of horses and some men say an army on foot and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing on the black earth, but I say it is what you love.” Sappho, the seventh century BCE musician and poet is said to have composed nine books of lyrics or poems meant to be sung to the string instrument called the lire, only one poem survived complete until a nearly complete poem was discovered in 2004. Two new poems were found in 2014, unbelievable. The rest are in fragments like this one. When I read it in my mind or out loud, I sense the breath of what is being conveyed on my skin. I smell the sweetness and warmth mixed with the sweat of something audacious. I feel held by it. I think it has to do with the dynamic quality of the address.

Sappho artfully declares her affection for, let’s say for now, you, by defining what is most beautiful in the world as what you say it is. Above and beyond the opinions of virtually everyone, including Sappho herself. But interestingly, the expression of adoration doesn’t seem to diminish her standing. In fact she feels enlarged and emboldened by it. What’s more, the fragment reads as if she finds pleasing the one she adores as pleasurable as being pleased herself. This dynamic is how I think it’s possible to consider friendship and pleasure as two aspects of the same phenomenon. It is common for Sappho to evoke friendship. I’m not gonna read these quotes. I’ll just point out the sections in red that I highlighted.

Sappho is a friend among friends. She praises them as she remembers them in her lyrics, which tend to suggest a reciprocity of relationship. There are also compositions that highlight the relationship between the collective and individual, that is to say between a we or a me or I. There’s nothing depressing or destructive about this social network. It is a closed circle of friends who support and gratify each other, speaking the language of affection in an atmosphere of intimacy. Pleasure, of course can be a pain — as can friends. The fragments I express frame it in the form of longing.

Sappho writes about being deprived of who she wants, who or what she wants. It tastes sweet bitter and at times sounds of it’s driving her or someone crazy. Feelings of vulnerability hang in the air. There’s also, to my eyes, two instances where a sense of precarity appears between friends. The friend in question is oneself. Not knowing what we want or even what we are supposed to think or be in a particular moment or situation can make us feel vulnerable, but it seems to me these feelings are essential in any living system that must adapt to changes that the system can neither fully control nor predict. Acute feelings of vulnerability are healthy signs that experiences triggered by change are not being ignored, are being reckoned with.

Having doubts without feeling chronically wounded or offended by them reflects the capacity to adapt and change our mind without the fear and anxiety of losing our mind in the process and this largely depends on the quality of the friendship we have with ourselves since self-reflection is what creates what I referred to as the mind in the first place. In the way I’m picturing how things go, pleasure is the friendship we extend to ourselves and others in order to make room for a kind of relationship where it feels natural to question what is worthy of being intimate with. Mess. I have real trouble taking seriously anyone who does not love sleep. This is not always the case.

When I immigrated to the United States in 1981, I was struck, even as a young boy, how Americans thought about sleeping habits. There was a moral dimension to it that had never occurred to me before. I remember vividly a history lesson where my elementary school teachers said in a reverential tone that none of America’s founding fathers rarely slept. George Washington got two and a half maybe three hours of sleep every night, the same for Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin didn’t sleep at all, apparently. These great men were too busy living their best lives, leading people and building things. I felt so ashamed. How could I ever be a real American? I sleep too much. For years I was sleep deprived. I learned that having a life meant living without sleep, so I didn’t. It’s different today. Perhaps it’s because I have given up on having a life, but I also think it’s our understanding of sleep that has changed.

Scientific studies suggest sleep deprivation greatly increases the likelihood of anxiety and depression. And can triple the chances of premature death from health problems associated with heart disease and strokes. Not sleeping literally kills. As early as Heraclitus, philosophers have considered sleep a questionable activity at best. Heraclitus associated it with death. Aristotle called it the soul’s idleness, not its activity. Even though elsewhere he conceded it as a necessity for all living things, necessary, yes, but not a good. In the Edumenian Ethics, Aristotle wrote, “The necessary conditions of health are not the same as health itself.” A good life comes from the character of our engagement in the world and how it reflects and expresses arete or excellence and sleep for him was arguably the opposite of engagement.

The notion of arete is what underwrites our sovereignty which Aristotle referred to as being up to oneself. A phrase I find strikingly beautiful. He wrote, “Being up to oneself is and is wholly reducible to what one’s nature is able to bear.” His emphasis on how it is up to the self to determine how one becomes happy and excellent is consistent in his ethics and arguably justified but as I have tried to show pleasure if it in truth is pleasure, it comes when we don’t have to bear it alone. Aristotle himself admitted that the are situations where being up to oneself may not be enough. He wrote that there are certain thoughts and emotions or the actions that arise from those thoughts and emotions, they are too powerful for us and goes even beyond one’s nature. I read here Aristotle making room for relating to what is beyond our control without judging it necessarily as bad or unworthy, he seems to admit that the art of living may consist in valuing more than what is solely up to us. Perhaps not surprisingly Aristotle makes the most room for this when he thought about friendship. “We hope that we hold that a friend is one of the greatest goods and that friendlessness and isolation are most dreadful.” And this holds true for Aristotle even when the friend is radically different from us, maybe even our opposite. “This is why stern people enjoy those who are witty. Energetic people enjoy those are laid back. Under each other’s influence, they both settle into the mean.”

The mean for the philosopher is what is best which is arrived at by striking a balance between the opposites or the extremes of the relations. The influence Aristotle referred to in the above quote, he elsewhere called love. The good of friendship comes from the art of loving someone. He wrote, “It is the person who takes more pleasure in loving other people than in being loved who is prone to friendship.” And this type of person who is prone to friendship is devoted to loving someone for the sake of their well being because it is a source of pleasure. Aristotle arguably thought this way because in his ethics, being active is a necessary good and pleasure only arises when we are active not passive. So loving is better than being loved perhaps because it is both more engaging and more demanding to love someone for the sake of who they are as opposed to being loved for you, who you already happen to be.

Friendship can be found with the dead as well. Aristotle believed people who stand firm in their love for those who have died are praiseworthy because they recognize those who have died without the recognition being reciprocated. I sympathize with the sentiment but it also makes me wonder if as I suggest, pleasure is under written by a framework best understood by friendship, what does it mean to be a friend to something inanimate like a thing or immaterial like the dead or an idea. And what does it mean for a thing to be a friend to us without appealing to forms of animism or supernaturalisms of any kind?

Here I want to draw upon a curious phenomenon I’ve encountered over the years as an artist. Sometimes I don’t recognize what I’ve made after it’s done. It’s as if someone else had conceived it and brought it into existence, which is ridiculous. There was help in the studio, and at times I was on my own, but I was there the whole time. And yet when this occurs, I always ask myself, “Who made this?” I have a theory. The more time I spend making a work, the more aware I become that the materials and processes I’m employing possess qualities that lie outside the bounds of what I thought were essential or useful to that work. My growing awareness about these other qualities arouses my curiosity enough that I begin to welcome them into the composition. Over time, what I originally wanted to make slowly becomes de-centered and less crucial. Do we have to go? This way of working, where the materials and processes are invited to change the making and mind, compels the work to a greater and greater degree of specificity until the work becomes something neither wholly of the mind that imagined it, nor fully the matter from which it is made. An artwork like this appears by in completing itself.

The best works I think I have made always feels uncanny because what I find good or exciting or pleasurable about it does not solely come from me and yet they still gratify, in part because I was willing and open enough to allow the relations I have forged with those works to show me what else there is besides what I wanted. A thing that is pleasing to us, like an artwork or a book or a heavenly slice of chocolate cake, may not reciprocate like a person, but this doesn’t mean our relations with it are static or passive. The influence a thing has and how it offers satisfaction and an enjoyment is only part of the dynamic, it seems to me. The pleasure a thing instills in us intensifies our senses such that new and more complex correlations are formed so that the full magnitude of the pleasure can be taken and felt. These new correlations broaden our general capacity of being aware. This broadening awareness is how I would describe a crucial aspect of any experience that is authentically pleasurable. I feel a heightened sense of being in touch with myself and who or what is pleasing me.

This sense of being touched maybe what distinguishes real pleasure from pleasure that is deadening, destructive or boring. Pleasure that is truly touching answers the call of what we want or need by drawing us outward toward what is pleasing. In this outward orientation we are more likely to become conscious of what it, of how it takes more than getting what we want to be truly pleased. This is how I think pleasure disorders us. Which is also what may make it pleasurable. Funny, it invites us to consider how enlivening and rejuvenating it is to make a mess of our body and mind which may have become intolerant of change or stiff from habit or rigid and inward facing from having to cope with pain or anxiety or perhaps the kind of mentality where the only thing that matters, are what one wants and what one is burdened with. Pleasure makes a mess of us this way and the best messes are made with friends. Thank you.

Audience 1: Thank you for being here. You called your nylon fabric breathers a clothing for spirits.

Paul Chan: That’s right.

Audience 1: And then you went on to talk about from Arecitis that you don’t actually believe that he received the super natural healing that he claimed. I’m wondering if you can speak more, especially given your interest in antiquity and philosophy, there was kind of a normative spirituality or super naturalism, how that works itself out in your work now.

Paul Chan: Got it, did everyone hear that? I think one way to work it out is that I have a particularly vague and broad notion of spirit. I think of, you know, a German form of spirit, which is, spirit of the times. Also I’m Cantonese and so, is anyone Cantonese here? Some, oh there’s one. Was that the same person? I see. You know, in Cantonese there’s a, one of my fondest phrases is, do you know that phrase? Okay and that translates as beautiful as a spirit. I think, you know, there are many ways to think about spirit, I think Aristides thought about it. My guess is, I’m not a classicist, I don’t belong, I’m just an interloper. But the scholarship that I’ve known about Aristides talks about how he’s really using the sacred tales to talk about his relationship with divinity and how the divine beings are either blessing him or not blessing him and so I think within Aristides’ relationship with the divinities, it’s really a very personal one, one where a god will say, “I’m going to heal you, I’m not going to heal you.” It’s very personable — it’s personified. But I think when I call my works “clothing for spirits,” I don’t necessarily think Athena’s in there, but I think it’s more of a feeling of something that you can’t see, you can’t feel, but nevertheless has a kind of intractable force. That might be the most ascetic way of describing it, what I call “clothing for spirits” and it’s funny, it’s really, when these works, you know, I’ve seen them in person, I don’t know if you guys have seen them person but there’s a weirdness to it when something is moving where you can’t see a body and you just feel like something’s there but you can’t see it even though the fabric is moving.

Audience 1: Thank you very much.

Paul Chan: Sure, thank you.

Audience 2: Hi, I’m wondering how having a child who is now about 6 maybe has affected your work.

Paul Chan: Whoa, you’re talking to me. How do you know about my kid?

Audience 2: Because she went to the same nursery school as my daughter did.

Paul Chan: No.

Audience 2: Lily, Lily Weir, yeah.

Paul Chan: Oh really? I see, yeah I remember. She’s 8, she’s 8 now, Ruby, she’s great. I have a daughter. It’s, wow. Wait, what’s the question that women get asked a lot?

Audience 2: How has having a child affected your work?

Paul Chan: I see, is that true? I see, so I should answer that too. Do you answer it or do you not answer it, I don’t know. Do you answer it?

Audience 2: Has it affected your work?

Paul Chan: Absolutely. Jim knows this, one of the early essays I wrote was called, “Odysseus as Artist” and I wrote it a couple a years ago and my client, my preposterous questionable claim is that you can see Odysseus’ cunning as a form of reason connected to the creative act. So I make a relationship between reason, cunning and creativity and embodied in Odysseus, how he gets in and out of trouble, how he’s trying to get home. I learned that from my daughter. I swear to god. When she was 2.5, she tried to trick me into getting cookies. Or getting what she wants, you know what I mean? And, you know, I think we’ve learned a lot from developmental theory of kids to know that, I mean, their brain is on, you know, out of the womb and to see her try to con me into getting what she wants and using reason to do it was completely profound. That’s where I got a lot of it from. Seeing my daughter using subterfuge and reasoning to try to get that cookie by saying, “Dad, I want to be close to you, will you carry me?” I was like, “Sure, I’ll carry you, I love you.” But she just wanted me to pick her up so that she could get onto the counter to get the cookie. But it wasn’t, she wasn’t lying, she was just reasoning that if he’s willing to pick me up then I can get to that cookie. That’s just one example. I think I’ve learned a lot. In fact, I think my work has radically changed because of it, taking care of a life and seeing a life develop that way has radically changed me.

Audience 3: This could be something we can talk about more tomorrow, but I was wondering about the inflatable that turned the breathers into that form and material or materials next to work that you used to do that was time-based officially, explicitly time-based and often involved screens or involved projections of different sorts and whether or not the turn to these preoccupations around friendship and rapport and feeling coincide with a turn to these materials or which are they, coincident for you in some way or is it different trajectories?

Paul Chan: You know, I’m sure they’re correlated. I haven’t thought that much through about it, I mean my work definitely radically changed. What’s your name? Shannon, hi. I call you Shannon. Sorry, I don’t have my glasses. No, it’s okay, thank you. My work has radically changed. If anyone knew me at all, it was through screen-based video projection, I used to make work between mid- to late-2000s. Animations that would project out of a video projector like this and it’d be projected onto wall on the floor on a specially made screen but I think around 2008, 2009, I kinda just quit cold turkey. I just left. I stopped making new work. I stopped taking invitations for shows. I would help people mount work that I already made, but I just stopped.

I think there were many reasons for it, and one of them was I think I had even then I had reached peak screen. What’s called peak screen, because in 2000, 2001, 2002, it still felt novel and interesting to make projection work or screen-based work. Moving images, animations that come out of a projector, projects onto a wall. But I think even in ’09, and certainly now, you know, your smart phone can play 6K, 4K videos, no problem. Video projectors can project on sides of buildings with the same clarity and resolution as sometimes your phone and I reached peak screen. I don’t wanna look at a screen to save my life. And I couldn’t bear the thought of having to make work that would exist on a screen and so the question becomes, “Well, hell, if you’re not going to, what are you going to do?”

And so I didn’t, I didn’t do anything. I did it for like years, five, six years. I started publishing books, but I think in a way I was just giving myself time. I was just giving myself time. I just needed time. I had to, like, “What do I really want to make?” and I am grateful for that time. Just incredibly grateful. Over time, I realized that when I make screen-based work and moving images, it wasn’t the images that I cared about, it was just the moving, and so I thought, “Well, is it possible to make moving images work that doesn’t move just on a screen?” And that’s where the breathers came in. I feel like I’ve cheated fate. That’s what it feels like.

That I now know how to make moving image works without a screen and it was horrifying, it was years, you know, some of those works took like 40 prototypes, that means like full-fledged versions of those and we’d put them on a fan, fly it, it’s like, “No, sorry.” It just goes stiff or doesn’t fly at all, just doesn’t work. I mean, that’s why it’s folk engineering. The field, the bodies of knowledge that I need is like fluid dynamics. And I don’t know fluid dynamics. I actually went to a scientist at NYU to try to help me, and he threw me out of the office. You know, I had to learn how to sew. But I felt like it was important because this was, like, that, so I can make something that doesn’t have to do with a screen and I think that was important, that was revelatory to me. Thank you.

Audience 4: If I could go off of that — two very suggestive things you said, one in the beginning, one at the end. One was that speaking about your breathers that, or actually about Cezanne and Matisse, that abstraction is a kind of way of deforming figure to embody movement. And then at the end, where pleasure is a kind of touch that draws us outward. I mean, is the difference between the work with the breathers and screen work, in terms of movement, that the breathers are a movement that touches, and therefore is able to say deform or mess with us or change us? And how does that sort of dimension of change work?

Paul Chan: Okay, let’s try that, okay. One of the nice things about being in a room with one of these, and I don’t wanna speak that they’re great works, you might hate them. But I think one of the nice things about being with one of these in a room is that you feel the air different because the air flow is happening, when you walk into a space where these are on, if you were discerning enough, if you aren’t completely fossilized in your senses, you’ll feel the air and so to me it’s a full-bodied experience. That’s not to say artworks or a screen base cannot have that, I think some of the best screen-based works, to me, great artworks can be distinguished from minor artworks by how bodily it is regardless of its medium. I feel it in my whole body. I think, you know, when I see a work that I care about, even if it’s just a sculpture or a painting or a moving image work but these, in a way, the likelihood of that happening, to me, is greater because literally, the air that is around these works are moving and you can also feel the whipping of them in a way that’s very bodily and physical and so I think the touching, what you call a touching, truly is externalized that way. I suppose you can do that with screen works, though it’s less, to me. I’m less interested in that anymore. You know, and I’m certainly completely allergic to things like VR and 3D stuff. It’s just the worst. The fucking worst.

Audience 5: Hi, thanks for the talk, it was very interesting. I wonder if you’ve thought about Plato in your work. I actually, in the talk, I actually was reminded of a scholar named Ian Bogus and quickly summarized, he says play is this thing that’s not necessarily opposite from work, but paying a deep amount of attention to something that may initially appear mundane and discovering new things about. I see a lot of connections between what he talks about and the talk that you gave today, so.

Paul Chan: Yeah. Who? I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding. I think that’s right, I think Plato touched on virtually every aspect of human experience and I think it’s, I think you’re right.

Audience 6: Hi Paul. Okay two questions, cool. One was to ask you to actually restate the point that you made at the very end about trying to figure out what makes us feel touched by material objects. If not because of animism, why do you rule that out? That was my one question, and my other one was to ask you to reflect upon electricity because electricity is like a force that’s required by the breathers and I was really aware of that watching those videos.

Paul Chan: I see, okay the first question is, “Why not animism?” I think that’s my temperament. I think in my way of thinking, I can’t make room for it. I think it’s, I can’t, I think animism and forms of super naturalism, I can’t make room, I have to feel like, I feel like my stakes involve the natural world as we understand it and I think philosophically and emotionally, those are where my stakes are and so it may simply be those stakes that stop me from doing that.

But the feeling of a thing having a hold of us as if it’s alive is certainly a real feeling and that’s what I tried to articulate in the idea of a thing touching us and I think that dynamic involves us somehow the thing opening us up in a way where we see new vistas in a way that we wouldn’t have if we didn’t have relations with that thing and the touchingness may be the feeling like a friend telling you that you should do this or you should do that. It’s almost like, I relate it to, what I talked about with self reflection. Like, I don’t think I’m schizophrenic, but I do talk to myself, you saw me in the hallway talking to myself. Like when I saw Anne Walsh, I’ve known Anne for long, like I saw her in the hallway before and she’s like, “Oh, what are you doing? You’re just talking to yourself.” It doesn’t feel crazy to me. It feels like that’s where I need to make, I have to come to an agreement with myself and the best way to do that is to role play in a way.

So, I’m talking to myself and it’s the conversation that allows me to make up my mind, literally because I can’t think with just me here. There’s nothing to reflect to. I mean, I take self reflection very literally. Like, I have to see myself somehow, role play myself in order to make up my mind. So, I don’t think, I think of it that way. So, you know, I think of things like that. Like, are you caring for me in a way, like a good friend or not, you know? And a crazy, extreme example would be like opioids. You know, opioids bring pleasure, they kill pain, but I honestly don’t think it’s that good of a friend. It’s like that friend that constantly wants you to pay attention to it and what kind of a friend is that? Do you know what I mean? It doesn’t have your best interests in mind, in so far as your best interests may be to flourish and thrive in a way that you’re most capable of. So, I think of that as an imaginative role play, I suppose of things and I feel that way about works that I make. The works that I care about most are the ones that showed me things that I didn’t even think about caring about but I was for some reason, it led me there, you know, and I made really crappy works just a lot and I think part of it is that I didn’t learn anything. I just made what I wanted. And that was it.

Timothy Hampton: Thank you so much, Paul.

Paul Chan: Thank you.