The tides of the ocean are earth’s timepiece, marking the passage of hours at regular intervals through its rhythms. For writer and critic Kaitlyn A. Kramer, the ocean is a way into the investigation of time, coincidence and chance, and their relationships to art. In her first book Very Like a Whale, published in August by des pair books, the School of Visual Arts MFA Art Writing graduate considers these subjects and more in a collection of clement essays whose words unfurl for the reader like gentle waves on a clear day at the shore. On a recent hot, autumn day—a day that stubbornly clung to summer—Degree Critical’s Jessica Holmes sat down with Kramer to talk about the sea, the processes and challenges of writing, and the joys of reading Moby-Dick.
Jessica Holmes (Degree Critical): Though your book, Very Like a Whale, is a book of discrete essays, you return to the theme of the ocean throughout. Can you talk about the significance of the sea for you, and for your writing?
Kaitlyn A. Kramer: I imagine all writers, perhaps critics especially, have that document of writing fragments they have no excuse to publish in any of the channels that they usually work in. If I see an exhibition too late, or a film that has no relevance to the present day at all, I make a note in this space for safekeeping. So, when des pair books asked me to write this book, I consulted my document and considered all of these things that have intrigued me—artists and their various projects—and I noticed the oceanic themes throughout these works that were all somehow related to the sea and its movement. Acknowledging, or rather, seeing and determining that the theme was already inherent in my interests made it clear to me that this was something to pursue.
I grew up a mile away from the Pacific coast and it was definitely a place I would go to escape. There was a jetty that my friends and I would sit on all day and night, and we grew up on that jetty—we learned how to think, how to talk, how to be individuals among the waves. That was the sea for me. Now I live on a different coast of another ocean but it continues to be a place for me to return to myself when I need it.
DC: So when these essays were still half-formed, were they already referring to the ocean? Or were there some that you felt that you wanted to include and so you found that theme somewhere within them even though it had not been written yet?
KAK: I would say it’s not that they were all deliberately referencing the sea as much as I was looking for interesting and relatable ways to entangle them. I ultimately came up with five independent pieces that work through ideas within the general theme of “the sea” but are a little more nuanced, which created pockets to bring artists together that might not otherwise sit alongside one another in a more conventional review or essay.
For example, in the essay titled “One That Drifts,” the notion of drift comes from the artist Ellie Ga. She uses the sea and specifically oceanic drift as a way of talking about political action and reaction, through her personal experiences and collective memory. Also in that essay I introduce the printmaker Lindsay Buchman’s book project Sunstruck (2019), which looks at the ocean’s movement as both image and sensation. She considers the ocean through its materiality, and her art making process can be seen as one that drifts through various installations and media. It was interesting for me to talk about artists who wouldn’t naturally be brought together in the same discussion, or the same context, and finding gentle ways of putting them in dialogue. Freud’s in that one, too.
DC: So this idea of drift makes me think of time-based art, which is something that crops up repeatedly throughout the book. Chris Marker’s work obviously influences you, as does that of Agnès Varda. You refer to Pierre Henry’s score, Variations for a Door and a Sigh (1963), which inspired a ballet by Balanchine. What interests you in writing about time-based art and how does writing itself fit within the scope of time-based art?
KAK: In terms of writing, and even in my own experiences as a viewer—I find that I’m drawn to time-based art and media. There’s this beautiful confluence of chance and coincidence when you go to see a performance or installation, knowing it could be the only time you will ever see it. Maybe the ballet will only be staged again 20 years later or something, and you have to contend with your mind, and body, and position in the world in that moment when you are experiencing it. I’m attracted to this sensation most pleasurably as a viewer, but then as a writer I find it extremely challenging to write about, especially in the form of a review. It’s taxing to gather my thoughts after a performance and then immediately write something that could be published as a way to advertise or entice someone to go see it while it is still being staged. So this book was absolutely an opportunity for me to take more time to consider certain projects and performances I’ve seen over the years that have meant something to me.
As far as it relating to the form of my writing, I guess there is a level of subjective experience that I think naturally gets inserted into writing about time-based work, a tacit acknowledgment of my mind and body’s presence at an event at a specific time. Whereas a painting can, I think, present itself to everything and nothing. It can exist in a vault and still pack a punch. But if no one witnesses a performance, where does that potential contact linger?
DC: It’s funny that you say that, because the essay that closes the book, “The Miraculous,” contains a play-within-an-essay. How did you end up writing a play, and how did it find itself nestled within your essay, which I really loved?
KAK: Oh that’s great. When people come to me and say, “I read your book, let’s talk about it,” I immediately respond, “What did you think about the play?” [Laughs]
When I was a student at SVA in the MFA Art Writing program, I took a class taught by Dejan Lukic called “The Charismatic Image,” and I was reading a lot of plays at the time. And I say reading specifically, because as a student I didn’t really have a whole lot of access, monetarily, to seeing plays performed. So I would read about and then research plays I was interested in seeing, and then I would just pick up the books in which the plays were published. Observing what a play does when it only exists in my mind was a really exciting process for me, specifically with the plays of David Ives. It’s like reading a novel; only a novel that has a more fluid yet complicated narrative, because the reader is only given dialogue and direction, so she has to complete the composition for herself. I thought a lot about how a play might serve art criticism. What would result from writing about an artist or an artwork in a play rather than narrating a philosophical idea or a historical concept? What would it be to write criticism as a play? And so I wrote a few. The last one that I began writing is the one published in the book, “The Miraculous.” Actually, I was halfway through compiling the book and working out the essays when I found this play, which I’d forgotten about, and nearly shrieked. “I wrote a play about the sea? That’s remarkable!”
So I talked to des pair press and they were intrigued by it, too. The play was inspired by Bas Jan Ader getting lost at sea, a sort of “final performance” he was working on titled In Search of the Miraculous (1975). I suppose the play is a time-based interpretation of a time-based artwork. I was thinking about Ader and I wondered how my interpretation, or my thinking about the significance of his project, could be translated into another form? I have no idea how “The Miraculous” would be staged. Someone was asking me about it the other day and I thought, “Well, it would have to take place out at sea…” [Laughs]
DC: Is playwriting something that continues to interest you?
KAK: I would say it continues to fascinate me, both as a literary form and as a way of thinking.
DC: I want to go back to something you said a little while ago about coincidence, because moments of coincidence crop up throughout your essays. I was particularly struck by your recollection of leaving a small branch in a gallery’s film viewing room, only to have the art critic Claudia LaRocco apparently spy it there later, and mention its presence in a review of her own, which you in turn then read by chance. Can you talk a little bit about coincidence and its meaning for you, both as you wrote these essays, and more generally?
KAK: I love coincidences. I find them to be so fascinating, so generative, and I think they can sometimes form a framework for understanding your impulses and the things that you take care to see. Simply put, writing about art is a way of parsing out coincidences. I see something in a work of art and then I recall something else that I’ve encountered, or seen, or read. That, for me, is the moment writing begins. I had visited that Charles Atlas exhibition [“The Waning of Justice” at Luhring Augustine, New York, February 7 – March 14, 2015] and had both intellectual and emotional attachment to this memory of seeing the installation, having had this argument—a sort of definitive argument—with the person I was with at the gallery. To then read Claudia’s review that mentioned this branch we left behind was startling. Even thinking of us exiting the gallery as Claudia walked into the gallery…that image isn’t necessarily lost on me.
Claudia was a teacher of mine—coincidentally—and after I read that review I emailed her to tell her about this serendipity. At the time I had still not spoken to the person with whom it happened, and I think at that point I still needed to parse out the experience. When I wrote to her about the branch she responded, “Wait, did this happen or is this a conceptual gesture?” And I thought, “Honestly, I don’t know. Both?” I didn’t go back to this old email and construct this essay out of it or anything, but it certainly encompassed the same kind of energy, of push and pull, that I encountered when writing about this relationship again.
I feel that this essay is a kind of an embodiment of the process of finding coincidence within one’s own engagement with art and within the pulse of the art itself, and between different artists, and between place and time. You have Robert Rauschenberg and Charles Atlas making art on the same shore decades apart. What does that mean? What is borne of that quiet connection?
DC: All of this happens in your essay, “On Sharing a Sunset.” In this piece of writing, you move deftly and subtly between speaking to a distinct individual, almost as if you were writing a letter, and a grander “you,” the “you” that comprises a more general reading public. How did you hit upon this alternating viewpoint, and what was the experience of writing in this way?
KAK: This was one of the more challenging essays to write because I was attempting to bring in a lot of different modes of address, several artists, in addition to this suggestion of a personal experience intended to unite everything—this is not normally how I write. But to return to the grander idea of this book project, I was looking for a divergence from my practice. I wasn’t looking for the book to be a straightforward collection of essays on art. Instead, I wanted to reconcile with these ideas and events that I had long wished to write about, having now gained distance, by looking at them closely, compiling them together and shuffling them around, and finding methods to talk about them and, more importantly, to talk amongst them.
For example, the Charles Atlas exhibition was something that I couldn’t review, as I was on a different deadline at the time, and I’m ultimately so happy I had the opportunity to look back on it, and the coincidence with the branch, at a different time in my life. For this essay, I found the most direct way for me to convey this entanglement was to address the person who I had this experience with as if it were a letter, and to write as honestly and generously as I could about the art that I had been thinking about in relation to him and that time in my life. So if there is any vulnerability in this book, it’s is definitely hiding in that essay. Although, if I’m honest, the whole book is supremely vulnerable!
DC: And how does that feel? Having that much vulnerability published and out in the world now?
KAK: I admire artists that use themselves in their work, now more than ever. And to any writer brave enough to write a memoir… I personally find the thought to be completely psychotic. [Laughs]
But also very admirable! Art is a personal springboard and I oftentimes feel, as a critic, I’m tasked to write on behalf of someone else’s vulnerabilities, and this is a great responsibility. With that kind of writing, it often feels more appropriate to abandon my own sensibilities for the sake of clarity. So it was an instructive exercise for me to directly (and somewhat obsessively) acknowledge myself as a sympathetic viewer throughout my book.
DC: Is there something about the small press, des pair books, which allowed you to explore these directions? What kind of freedoms did it, or did it not, allow you?
KAK: Clarice De Veyra and Addison Richley, who run des pair books, were really supportive and enthusiastic the entire time. We talked esoterically about ideas I had, and about writing a book more generally. For awhile I thought it might be one long essay in fragments, or maybe it would just be this weird narrative modeled after Moby-Dick, only about art and not whales. I kept presenting all of these wacky ideas and they were both very, very present as I worked them out. They brought logistics to the table, like planning for its publication at summer’s end, which was a beautiful notion in consideration of the book’s themes. Writing a book with them felt more like collaboration than an exchange. They encouraged me, kept me on track, and of course produced the book. This is the first book that I’ve written so I didn’t have expectations, which afforded the three of us the freedom of working together to invent the outcome.
DC: And I hear you were often hard to keep track of because you were flying all over the world as you wrote this book. Tell me about your writing process.
KAK: I think there is a romantic conception about endless writer’s retreats and taking chunks of time off of work to execute a book or writing project, but the reality for me was that I was never going to have an uninterrupted timeframe to write, so I had to construct the time and space myself. And really, it unfolded in the nooks and crannies of routine. On a normal day, I wake up very early to write and then I go to work. I work full-time at the Calder Foundation as their registrar, and I will occasionally courier exhibitions to various cities around the world. This book happened to be written in a six-month period where I found myself traveling a lot, both locally and internationally. And those transitory spaces on trains and planes and haunted hotels in Connecticut—I found them all to be surprisingly productive. I was on a 16-hour flight to Hong Kong and I wrote nearly an entire essay in that space. I think there’s something about being physically contained, and also thrust over the earth’s surface that helps generate focus. There’s not much to do in that space other than contend with your thoughts. I write in a note at the end of the book that permission and time are complete illusions; that a writer sometimes has to find her own compromises.
DC: Your book is called Very Like a Whale, which is also the title of the first essay. The classic novel by Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, is significantly name checked in that essay. It becomes a kind of overarching presence within your book. Without it ever being being mentioned again beyond the first chapter, Moby-Dick is always there. So, how many times have you read Moby-Dick?
KAK: This is a fun question. For anyone who has read Moby-Dick, or anyone who has enjoyed reading it or considers it to be one of their favorite books, I think they would agree that it is not a fluid experience. In the first essay I mention Laurie Anderson, who made an experimental opera about Moby-Dick after reading it something like five times. She speaks about Melville’s book being an encyclopedia of everything, that the whale is everything, and that you can read whatever you want into the quest. My continued experience reading Moby-Dick, unlike any other book, is that I can pick it up at any chapter—and there are a thousand chapters—and simply begin. It’s different every time. It also seems to be one of those classics that everyone thinks they’ve read, because it’s such a prominent text in the literary canon, yet I find very few people have actually spent time with it. You can discover the most absurdly modern and absolutely delicious allusions and alliterations throughout the text. Melville’s Ishmael describes the “gaudiest and sleepiest of sunsets,” and the “dewy, distant dreaminess” of a mountain ridge, for example. His language kills me. It’s a book you can read forever; it changes over time, and I became concerned with memorializing its place in my life, as if in the hopes of marking or maybe stalling the passage of time through its presence.
The title of my book, Very Like a Whale is from a section at the beginning of Melville’s, called “Extracts,” where he supplied a 15-page, seemingly exhaustive list of literary references to whales that a sub-sub-librarian helped him compile, representing whatever random allusions to whales he could find in any book whatsoever, “sacred or profane.” The extract “Very like a whale” is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and it’s the shortest of Melville’s accumulations. It’s also the most perplexing. “Very like a whale,” sounds like a fragment, right? It sounds modern, almost colloquial. I like to think of Melville starting his tome with a list of all of these references he’s borrowed from the library, seizing extracts from literature, from poetry—a book that begins with a list of borrowed language that inspires. I guess through that lens, I might see my project as a continuation of the theft.
So, how many times have I read Moby-Dick? Once. One time, and everyday of my life.
Very Like a Whale by Kaitlyn A. Kramer is out now from des pair books. 64 pp. $12.
Kaitlyn A. Kramer is a writer based in New York.
Jessica Holmes is the Editor-in-Chief of Degree Critical. She also contributes regularly to the Brooklyn Rail, BOMB, and other publications. Find her writing and other projects as www.jessica-holmes.net.