Tell me about your first exposure to zines.
Let me start off by saying I don’t use the word “zine” in reference to my work. I was first drawn to the idea of self-publishing as a means of artistic expression from my exposure to artists’ books in the early seventies. That led to mail art which brought forth not only the postcards and singular mailings, but a range of chap-book sized publications.
How long have you been writing Duplex Planet? What made you decide to create a print zine? And what gave you the inspiration to collect (and publish) interviews with the elderly?
I started publishing The Duplex Planet in 1979. This was not my first entry into the world of self-publishing, but it was the first time I conceived of producing a periodical. My earlier fascination was with the world of artist’s books. In the mid-seventies I’d mail order regularly from Printed Matter in New York City, which stocked all manner of publications at affordable prices. I was especially taken with something Ed Ruscha said in an article I read, describing the thrill he got from seeing a stack of his new books back from the printer and in neat piles in front of him on the table. As I looked around the studio at my paintings that were leaned everywhere, this held a certain fascination for me.
The Duplex Planet found its shape and size within the first four issues and has remained basically the same since. Though the material has reached a broader audience in its other forms (books, CDs, performances, comics books, etc), I still feel very attached to the whole act of publishing it myself for it’s relatively small audience. On the one hand, it keeps me on my toes, coming up with new material on a regular basis, and on the other, the aesthetic of the work itself is enhanced by its very means of production and distribution. Most copies go to subscribers, and, since one of my aims is to sketch in characters little by little — the way you’d get to know someone you bump into once in a while — that process is heightened by each new issue being actually dropped into a reader’s hands over a period of time. (It was monthly for about a dozen years, bimonthly for a decade and a half and lately it’s been quarterly or thereabouts.)
My initial impulse to do this was entirely personal: I wanted to get to know people who were nearing the end of their lives but whom I’d never met before. I never knew them before so wasn’t caught up in mourning their assorted losses (internal and external). I found this personally enriching and realized it was a rare occurrence in our society. Most people are exposed to aging solely by witnessing family members age and die. Our own mortality is so tied up in that familial parade that it is very hard to learn anything from it that doesn’t underscore our own finite lifespans. Meeting new people, no matter what age they are, can be a rich and vivid experience -– it makes us feel good. The wonderful mystery of all relationships is that they start at the point we meet and move forward, with all the life that preceded that meeting being asked and told about, but never coming to life the way the present does.
All of the major decisions in our lives — choice of career, where to live, whether or not to have a family, etc – are made having had examples of others already doing them. As regards aging and decline, we are generally limited to the loss of those we’ve known the longest: first our grandparents and their generation, and then our parents. I have benefited from meeting so many elders who are not related to me over the past thirty-two years (which is to say, I never knew them before and they new knew me, so we both started from the same point and moved forward together, however briefly). The Duplex Planet is my way of taking that personal experience, abstracting it somewhat, and letting it land on people as it may. Depending on who encounters it, there are many different responses. I don’t seek consensus but relish the messiness of art: that there is no one right way to perceive it. If someone reads or hears it as dadaist wordplay, that’s fine. If someone else is moved by the fleeting but potent glimpses of ordinary people talking in ordinary ways, that’s perfect too.
Was Studs Terkel or the WPA an influence on your work? How did you develop your interviewing style? It’s very subtle, mostly open-ended questions and letting the interviewee set the tone and pace.
I read and admire his work, but other than the fact of it being other people’s voices I’m gathering, I feel that it’s a very different undertaking. I like to find material that is unique to someone talking to me –- the way a real conversation is a unique occurrence. Furthermore, I’m interested in what I call fractured narratives –- incomplete story arcs that allow the character to resonate rather than a complete story.
To end up with conversational material I need to put myself into the mix, so the things we talk about reflect me as well as the person I’m talking with. And, with many of the people experiencing memory loss, I need to get things going in a way that will engage them, but then also keep them engaged. If they change the subject midstream, I go with them wherever that may lead. I’m not after historical information or data of any sort, but the vivid presence of another person in whatever condition they may be in, or however small their orbit has gotten.
When you first started publishing Duplex Planet, did you encounter any resistance or suspicion about what you were doing? (I’m thinking from nursing home officials, etc.)
None at all. I took a job at a nursing home as an activities director specifically so I could meet a range of elderly. It was a wonderful place, a small family-owned home, forty-five beds, all male, run by the son of the man who’d started it. Ray Murphy, the owner, was a wonderful man who truly cared about the men who lived there. I worked there for a few years (1979-82), long enough to find that I didn’t want to be working at a nursing home, but wanted to continue to meet the people who lived in them. In the decades since, the history of my work becomes a way in. Also, I’ve been doing artist residencies to create new works (monologues with music, also books, as well as material in the ongoing periodical). These have been for museums and universities and that also helps to open doors.
Is there a particular interviewee that stands out in your memory? Do you have a favorite story or anecdote that you’ve been told? Has there ever been a time when you were completely caught off guard by a response?
There have been so many people I’ve met and talked with over more than half of my life that many of them come to mind depending on what I’m doing. Surprise ones seem to always resurface, prompted by something that was said or occurred. They even show up in my dreams. I am routinely knocked out by the people I meet — just as I am when it’s not in the context of this ongoing work of mine. Most recently, there was a woman in Milwaukee (I was there as artist in residence for three months) named Maxine Gilboy. She had very little short term memory but loved to converse with me. I followed wherever it went, even if it didn’t make sense. In the end, the emotional resonance was the same — or even more potent -– than the hundreds of thousands of conversations I’ve had in my lifetime with people who do have all their memory. I remember pretty much none of those conversations, because the main purpose of most conversation is to give us an emotional memory of a person. We’ll forget what was said, but will remember, “Oh, I liked that guy, I’d like to see him again.“
Duplex Planet has a nice web presence right now. Would you ever publish exclusively online?
As an artist, I struggle to carry out my ideas and stay afloat. That’s not a complaint, it’s a simple fact. It’s the trade off for doing things exactly the way I want to, rather than tailoring it to the marketplace. I believe in what I do, and enough other people also do, so that I know what I do matters. That said, I like making things that you hold in your hand (or put on your wall), objects. The website has been a tool to get people to find out about these things that I make: The Duplex Planet, CDs, books, drawings, etc.
What kind of work goes into creating an issue? How much time?
I print two at a time, I get a better price from the printer that way. That’s how I’ve been doing it since the early nineties. I have files for pieces that will go into issues and sometimes they fit what I’m doing, but lately issues have been built around regional projects: Chatanooga, TN, Portland, OR, Erie, PA, Cape Cod, Milwaukee. The issues are filled with pieces all derived from conversations with people in those cities.
The layouts for Duplex Planet are simple but very eye-catching. Who are some of the people who have contributed art and illustrations to your zine?
Most are by me, both covers and photographs inside, but over the years many friends have done artwork for covers. Some are comic artists (such as Gary Leib, Doug Allen, Wayno), others are artists in other media (including Darryl Vance, Michael Hurley, Bill Whorrall). The photographer Jim Herrington did portraits of some of the elderly I spoke with in Milwaukee and those are being incorporated into recent issues. I’m also pleased to have been able to use art by Ed Ruscha and Ralph Steadman for a couple of my CDs.
What sort of feedback and reactions do you get from your audience?
That’s a whole chapter unto itself, but in a nutshell, I hear primarily from people who are moved by my work. There are those who don’t understand it, which reaffirms for me that I’m on the right track. Their resistance to witnessing aspects of decline reveals more about them than about the piece at hand.
You’ve been able to do some amazing offshoot projects from the zine – radio segments, documentaries, music, books. How do you approach projects like these?
It’s all a mix of aesthetics, a set of skills and problem solving. I’ve found that one discipline can empower me in others –- being a bass player affected me as a painter, which affected me in making The Duplex Planet, which, in its various forms, is like painting and music for me.
What zines are you enjoying right now?
I don’t see too many lately, but The Alterrian, The Lowbrow Reader, and Ice Cream For Quo come to mind. From the past, I’d mention Dishwasher, Closest Penguin, Lost & Found Times, any by Blaster Al Ackerman, Eight Track Mind, and Symphonic & Popular Music Journal, Nancy’s Magazine, Kooks, and Civitas.
Would you give us a preview of what you are working on next?
I’ve got to get a couple issue of The Duplex Planet to the printer and have one about done, again drawn from my Milwaukee months. I’m also readying four CDs for release in the late fall. Each is with a different musical collaborator, and the titles are Never Give up Study, Oh Pa, How I Became Uncertain, and Tell Me That Before.