A Dialogue with Jake Berry by Chris Mansel (2008).
[Editor's Note: This exchange features two of the most creative contemporary minds I’ve encountered. No one rejects convention more thoroughly than Mansel and no one of the unconventional creative bent is better read or more informed than Berry. Both are writers and artists of singular character – in the uniqueness of their pluralities. If there is a better source on the creative process, I am not aware of it. Jazz.]
[Chris Mansel: Any conversation for me with my friend Jake Berry is a learning experience and a gift I do not take lightly. I was again fortunate to ask Jake questions for the third time and the answers speak for themselves.]
Chris Mansel: If the Buddha were standing out in the rain would you invite him in, or go outside and stand with him?
Jake Berry: I'd invite him in to help me tear the roof off my house.
Chris Mansel: If your creativity is the medicine you are prescribed, then is the diagnosis running parallel or controlling the ship on troubled seas?
Jake Berry: You know how to load a question. I think of how they found Nietzsche mumbling to himself over his papers. He never said much after that though he lived many years in silence. Or Holderlin pacing in circles all night, jotting down notes, some of them brilliant fragments, and playing violin, or was it flute, that according to some who heard it was quite beautiful. Yet it is obvious from people who spent long periods in his company that he was suffering greatly, quite mad, relative to the times anyway. He lived another 40 years deteriorating.
I know that working more or less every day at one creative pursuit or another keeps me from going to Wal-Mart, buying a shotgun and shells and having a go at the place with both barrels until the cops and media arrive and spoil my fun. Some of us are afflicted with this thing. The nerves are calmed for a moment after you write or speak/sing a poem, write a song, play a musical instrument, paint, draw. It has been this way since I was a child. Artaud said no one ever did any of these things except to get out of hell. He would know. He spent enough time there.
At the same time it can be extremely hard work - grueling, obsessive day after day. Insomnia from dwelling on a piece so intensely it won't leave you rest. Knowing that even your most inspired effort is probably doomed to failure, even by, perhaps especially by, your own standards. I know you suffer from migraines, seizures and so forth that seem connected to your work. But then once you really commit to this thing everything is connected to it.
What I try to do, with actually a small degree of success, is keep my ego out of it. Out of my feelings about the work, out of how others react to it, and out of dominating the work as the central voice.
Most creation tales begin in chaos, the void, or some similar unknown. So it is. We stumble around in the dark. Those who practice any of the arts and believe they know what they are doing are utter fools. If I have learned anything, it's how to recognize a fool. I have a great deal of experience in the art of foolishness, where practice does not make perfect, but only makes one more foolish.
Chris Mansel: If destructiveness is in the chemical makeup, does it come from the same component as creativity, or do they operate individually off of one another further down the line?
Jake Berry: I don't see how they cannot be interwoven. Creation and destruction seem to be part of the same process of change. Since nothing is permanent we can see the change as either the destruction of what has disappeared or the creation of something new. When we bring intent into consideration we can discuss whether creation is the result of intention to make something new or destroy something previously present. Further than this we can discuss particular instances of creation and destruction.
Let me answer then with a question to you. Are your films a destruction of the images from which they originally drive or are [they] pure creations in which the original image is merely the ore, the raw substance to be shaped in a particular way? To what extent is the end result predetermined or left to chance?
Chris Mansel: The images are deconstructed in such a way as to bring out the image beneath the surface. What you refer to as pure creations is left to modifying or using the software in such a way as to bring about a new surface of the canvas, a painting over if you will. Everything was left to chance until I saw the image and I would then go back and correct it or take the muddy approach and let the muck fly where it lay. When I started working with your Brambu recording I began a whole new process of working towards the text and an evolution began that as you often say, “Developed delightfully stranger and newer life forms.” In other words I did things that I didn’t know I could do until I did them. My latest film The Dead Illume is a perfect example of this.
Your blog Notes, Quotes, Ideas, Speculations hasn’t been posted on in three years and this is a fascinating piece of work. I wonder if you have any plans to expand it into a book length project in the future.
Jake Berry: There was a train of thought I was working with there and I still want to develop it, but I have been distracted by other projects. I intended the site as a place to post more or less random philosophical bits and pieces. So perhaps I will return to it that way then pursue the longer piece by weaving it in and out of the rest.
You say above, "I did things I didn't know I could do until I did them." That seems to be the most appropriate way to work. In my experience if I understand where a piece of whatever kind is going before I start it doesn't remain interesting for very long. The whole point of this kind of practice is discovery. The thing that surprised me the most was the quality of the work you were doing with a computer camera and free software. There are directors working with budgets of millions of dollars who devour hours of our time and do not give us anything. You on the other hand open entire worlds of imagination with no budget and asking only two-five minutes of our time. Do you intend to continue working with this approach or would you like to eventually use professional cameras and software?
Chris Mansel: Of course I would like to use more sophisticated equipment and turn it on its side in the same manner. But I don’t foresee it happening. One reason is funding. I just don’t see any way I would have access to the kind of equipment you are talking about. Another reason I don’t think it will happen is because it would be the natural progression of things and that just hasn’t been the way my life has worked out.
In Arthur Janov's book, Primal Scream, he writes, "E. H. Hess, investigating pupillary contraction and dilation in response to certain stimuli, found that the pupil dilates when the stimulus is pleasant and contracts when it is unpleasant." If this is true would not a nation be so seized in its view to generally accept any thing that was thrown at them?
Jake Berry: I suppose that's true if what was thrown at them was pleasant. At least that portion that was paying attention. I think the manipulation of a populace has to go further than the autonomic response. It has to strike at that level, but it also must engage the intellect in some way. And of course pleasure is only one response that can be manipulated. We have seen how populations respond to fear, and how fear can be used to coerce populations into believing things that would otherwise seem unreasonable. It's part of the way those in power convince the majority to conform. The real power always lies with the majority. If the great majority of a population truly does not wish to do something, then it does not have to, but this requires a kind of solidarity we rarely see in large populations. Usually the struggle for resources and other divisions like ethnicity, religion, race, and so forth prevent solidarity, and that is exactly the way the most powerful individuals in any society would like to keep it. Only a few can be rich, otherwise having wealth would be pointless. In a capitalist society, wealth is power and those in power do not wish to lose it. So the manipulation begins.
Where does art fall in all of this? We know that it can be used as a tool for manipulation, but we also see that people with no power at all the world over make art. If the populace in general becomes more concerned with aesthetics than with consumption, the facsimile of wealth, will that populace become less subject to manipulation?
What I mean is concerned with making art, not just passively observing or consuming art products.
Chris Mansel: Art becomes the transparency that can be lifted up and placed anywhere at will. Commercial art has taken upon itself to balance out the scales of madness to borrow a song title from you. Having no power you can still make commercial art, anything feeds the eye, it’s the pineal blues these days. The false Buddha is everywhere. It is more important now to be the bug than the botanist, to be the moth than the flame; to be seen is the new orgasm, the new sexual technique. Cesare Lombroso wrote in 1899, “The atavism of the criminal when he lacks absolutely every trace of shame and pity, may go back beyond the savage even to the brutes themselves.”
I would like to ask you about a song entitled “So Many Birds.” This is a very dramatic recording. Could you talk about the song and the writing and why you placed it as the last track on your new album Liminal Blue?
Jake Berry: "So Many Birds" was I think the last song I wrote for the set. I think I wrote 15 songs during the period, 11 ended up on the album. I was about to change the tuning on the guitar when I hit a chord that felt like a door opening - one of those moments when you hear a whole song unfolding out of a single chord. The tuning is one I use often because it has so many possibilities. I never seem to fall into a rut with it. The low E string is tuned down to B and it goes on from there to F sharp, B, E, A, E. I found it a few years ago fooling around, looking for new tunings, then discovered later that Joni Mitchell had used it on several albums, including Turbulent Indigo, one of my favorites.
That's probably why it made sense to me. It's easy to get 13th and 11th chords in this tuning, so the harmonics are fairly broad. The first part of the song works out of an F sharp minor 13, so the melody is a minor modality, a darker, more dramatic feel. The second section of the song moves to A major, and F sharp minor is the relative minor to A, so you get what Leonard Cohen calls, in "Hallelujah", the "major lift." But it eventually resolves back to the minor. This was a case where the words flowed out of the music. They came to me as I was working out the chords and melody.
It happened fairly quickly. When I went to record it, all the parts seemed to come quickly as well. There is one idea that I got from listening to the first Portishead album. I noticed in one of the songs the way they used vibrato on a guitar strumming the chord at the beginning of each measure. I liked the atmosphere that created, so I tried it with "So Many Birds" and it was very effective. The song doesn't sound anything like Portishead, but that's another reason to listen to all kinds of music, you get ideas you can bring into your own work to create something new. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were influenced by Ravel and Debussy, and Ravel was influenced by early blues. The reason it's the last song on the album is because it feels like a good way to finish it. It often happens that the album sequence is very close to the order in which the songs were written. There's also the last line - "ride on, until you disappear, even from yourself."
After that it felt like the story had been told.
As your film/video style develops I see how you move from very recognizable images of nature to pure abstraction, which is just as organic since it is derived from the original images. This movement takes me in two directions. It seems to make the film more spiritual, intuitive, more open to the imagination. It also makes me think of the films of Stan Brakhage. This is not because it looks like Brakhage but because you seem to allow the work to take its own course and move into those open areas. How does this work from the inside as you are working on the piece?
Are you trying various techniques or experiments then going with what seems to work best or is it even more organic than that, does it seem to guide itself completely?
Chris Mansel: The difference in Brakhage and me is his images would rush by you and constantly you found yourself inside a community reflecting off one another. In my defense I am alone without the benefit of community and working in a limited medium and without editable film. The software I use is limited to its creation. Film is strength in a society of weakened eyes searching for anything. Brakhage was a genius but then again so was Greg Toland and he never directed one picture but you can’t mention Citizen Kane without discussing his work.
As I am working on each piece the image, the initial image suggests everything and until I add any abstraction, for lack of a better term, it says nothing at all unless you count the surface or what light has down to it in the original photograph. Nietzsche’s last words were, “More light.” He also suggested we listen to music with our muscles. If that is true then perhaps we look at film with our brain, each individual eye developing or editing the image separate from one another. Burroughs was right; life is a cut-up. The process is organic. Short of literally showing you how I make a film I can explain that separate filters in the software capture and distort light in different ways. It is back dated software to the year 2000 so there are more advanced processes out there on the market but I have been successful with what I have at hand. It is organic and it is a process of selecting the recipe per each individual image. There is no way to fully explore the depths of it because there are innumerable ways to take photographs and countless recipes.
Aaron Copland wrote, “When I speak of the gifted listener I am thinking of the non-musician primarily, of the listener who intends to retain his amateur status. It is the thought of just such a listener that excites the composer in me.”
Do you happen to agree with Copland or do you compose for whoever listens?
Jake Berry: My definition of a listener might be different from Copland. I probably don't draw as clear a distinction between amateur and professional. We live in very different times. In Copland's day professional musicians played classical music, with club or cabaret musicians considered a distant cousin, even though Copland based much of his music on very unprofessional American folk music. I do think that a trained musician or a musician who makes a living by performing and recording music will hear very differently from the music fan who does not play, or the casual listener who enjoys whatever is on the radio. However, I wouldn't say I have a particular type of listener in mind.
Writing a song is more intuitive than intellectual. I am following the feel of the music, contributing to it, toward something that seems real, something that connects with my experience of the world, and something that remains interesting as I develop the progression and melodies and so forth. I hope that if a song is true to my experience, has an authentic feel, and remains interesting over the process of writing and recording, it will also connect with other people, though on their own terms. Most of the time when someone responds to me about one song or another they discover things I never imagined. That's an affirmation as far as I'm concerned because it means that person found something of their own in the song. As a fan, my favorite music always has that quality, so that's a measure of success for me.
Wayne Sides pointed out the obvious to me one day when he said photography is light writing, writing with light. The great photographers, from Steiglietz to Weston to Minor White or Robert Frank all seem to have that in common. Just as drawing is a moving point, so photography is moving light. This is even more so with moving images with people like Toland or Sven Nykvist. You are a poet, novelist, songwriter, painter and sculptor/assemblage artist as well as a film maker. Do you see all these things as part of a whole, points along a continuum or do the demands of each discipline make them completely distinct from one another? If they are part of a whole how does each of the mediums in which you work inform your film and video work?
Chris Mansel: It's a continuum of course but then again it's not. To make a mistake in a film is like making a mistake in any of the other fields you named. You simply have to start over or have to rethink the process. I can't reedit because the software is unable to do so. If I had to pick a discipline I would pick assemblage to mirror film making. I walk along the shore or though the woods or anywhere really and stop and look at a piece and wonder if I could make it work with something else. That takes a lot of thought. But as The Marquis De Sade wrote, "Any enjoyment is weakened when shared."
But the Marquis was insane.
Your writing has always been visual, now that I have given video to the audio recordings of your text, where do you go now with your written word? Is there a way to transcend the traditional form of delivering to the reader or listener?
Jake Berry: Doing Brambu Drezi Book 4 with a moving image component has been my intention for two years or so and the opening section of Brambu Book 4 was finished and posted at You Tube and the IFC Media Lab last fall.
Since then I've done the video and some of the audio for the second section of Book 4, but I'm still working on the words and the visuals on the page. There is a tendency to want to put the words in the video, and I will do some of that (you've done that beautifully with some of your own poetry in video by the way), but the ideal situation is to have the book in hand at the same time the DVD will be playing. The book itself is both a score for performance and visual art. The video as you have added to excerpts from Books 1-3, and as I will continue with Book 4 is just another element. I don't think there is any need to transcend the traditional forms of poetry, just add to them. There are many films that I think are poetry based purely on the visual alone. We spoke about Brakhage before, and I think your work does this. Also, a little closer to the feature film, directors like Godard, Antonioni, Terrence Malick, et. al. create a kind of visual poetry. Godard also drops words into his films sometimes, right in the middle of scenes, at first inexplicably, but gradually you recognize it as a kind of cut-up poetry.
Most of your film/video work so far has drawn from landscape, do you envision a time where you'll want to work with the human form?
Chris Mansel: Yes I have thought of this but I would have to have a model who wouldn't mind the painful prostrations I would put her through. The shots I have in mind would also be in nature and in a studio setting. They would be called Essays in the Passing Sciences. It would be a film about an hour long. I have already conceived some of it in my mind but I don't know if it will take place or not.
Jake Berry: I do what I can to support the work of others, but I never feel like I have done nearly enough. It would be nice to have the resources to start a publishing and recording company so that I could promote and distribute the work of all the artists of whatever kind who are now often ignored. I don't think it's a continuation of my art necessarily, but one wants to give something back, and give something to the world beyond your self. When you love the arts and you see great work not getting the recognition it deserves you want to do something about it. At the same time, whenever I get a few extra dollars I spend it getting my own work out there or buying instruments or equipment that will help me create and promote my own art as well as others. So I feel selfish as well.
Essays in [the] Passing Sciences sounds like a wonderful project. You might be surprised. There might be people willing to do the work because they are interested in being a part of a project beyond the ordinary film. Could you go into a little more detail about what you have in mind?
Chris Mansel: Specifically in nature, there would be those parts of the body I find interesting that would either coalesce with the environment or protrude. In a studio it would be more close-up. There are many things I find interesting about the human body. The idea is to photograph in both settings the form in a new and interesting way.
Say for instance the arm from the shoulder to the elbow against a broken limb both hanging from a tree and a broken limb on the ground. In a studio setting the arm would take on a different meaning when it was up against a light bulb that was turned off to signify the idea is there but it is nothing new.
Another idea is have the body submerged in leaves with only the hair emerging. These are essays and who is to say if is it science or not?
One thing your writing is known for, particularly your Brambu writings is the art. A book of your art, drawings, sculpture would be a monumental task but well worth the under taking. Do you think such a book would free you to create more art and distance you from what you have already created?
Jake Berry: I'm not sure what the result would be. But if there is a publisher willing to give me the opportunity I'd leap at it.
In the past when I've been confronted with similar situations I tended to add it to the things I did rather than subtract it from the activities in which I was already engaged. So I would probably assemble a collection of work that had not been associated with any previous project and spend a period of time obsessed with creating new work.
Your written work, whether prose fiction, non-fiction political writing, or poetry is so diverse that it is almost impossible to imagine it as the product of a single mind. Do you have as many selves, as many souls, as you have approaches to work? Are we by nature singular or plural or both?
Chris Mansel: I have often wondered this myself. When I write, from start to finish, unless it is a long piece I usually finish it in just a few minutes. A poem will sometimes take two minutes or more. The words come out so quick I am lucky to get it down in a cohesive piece. Since I have seizures I can hardly write legible any more creatively. So like most these days I write at the computer.
As far as approaches to work I have a select library I pull from. I won’t try and list them but Dante plays a major role.
Non-fiction mostly, personal experience is where I glean. Pete Townshend quoted Elvis Costello once and said, “Each writer must be a thief and a magpie.” I adhere to that philosophy a great deal.
We are by nature singular though most might disagree. I have said many times your creativity is the medicine you are prescribed. You are prescribed not anyone else. You are the one writing even if someone else is editing. You are the one faced with the blank screen or piece of paper, you and you alone. I can’t think of a better place to be, though I have felt different many times. This evening alone I had a seizure and spent five hours in the emergency room. It was my seizure and it was my pain. I had my wife and daughter with me but it was my instance that brought me there. We are a singular being adrift in a tidal pool. Back and forth we go through life but you can never get away from the fact that we are alone.
Do you foresee a day when the writing of Charles Olson will be taught alongside Mark Twain and Washington Irving in our education system?
Jake Berry: The thought of Charles Olson being taught in our education system troubles my sleep.
I can foresee a time when Olson will be taught at various levels of secondary education and that time is now. He just isn't being taught very widely. There's also a backlash in some quarters against modernism right now. Part of this is justified because in some places modernism and post-modernism (whatever the fuck that is) eclipsed everything else for a while. It makes sense that we keep modernism in perspective. It's only a small part of the story. On the other hand there are those that want to toss it completely in favor of a return to some imagined period when poetry was held in high esteem and was relatively easy to understand. That was before audio recordings, certainly before audio recordings and films became so popular. Even without new formalism or other poetries that shun the apparent difficulties of modernism there are still forms of poetry that are easy to understand and are extremely popular. It just hides under the name 'popular music.' While much in that area is pure product, candy - there is still great poetry sneaking out as pop music because that's the medium in which it is performed. It's a long list and everyone that really loves popular music and devotes time to listening to it will know immediately what I'm talking about. When I use the term popular music, I mean all the music that has been popular in terms of a large audience (compared to other forms like classical, avant-garde, art song and so forth) over the last century as recording technology has made music available to everyone. There's no small amount of modernism in pop music either. But you rarely hear people complain about the difficulty of a Radiohead lyric for instance, or the obscurity of Beck's references. People talk about the words. They recognize them as being more abstract, but that isn't a problem. There are millions of people walking around singing lyrics that are open to as many interpretations as there are listeners and few have a problem with this.
Does the fact that you can sing an obscure bit of poetry make it better somehow than reading it in a book? Maybe it does. Maybe someone should set The Maximus Poems to a nice backbeat, mix in a heavy bass line and some nice guitar licks. I bet if a successful artist did that and didn't call any attention to the fact, beyond the essential permission notice buried in the credits, we'd have people all over the world singing Olson.
The troubled sleep was a paraphrasing of Ezra Pound who said the same thing about the classics being taught.
I have certainly had my share of troubled sleep, but I am as likely to have it troubled by something I am working on as anything else. I'll be so intensely focused on a poem or song that some part of me can't let it go long enough to rest. I wish I was romanticizing this, and I never used to have this problem, but it definitely happens now. Also, I have often found sleep to be a source of creativity. I was trying to catch up on missed sleep from last night with a nap this afternoon and woke up with the phrase along the lines of "the devil is going to get his." I don't know what this means, but for some reason I attached it to the current conflict between Russia and Georgia. Sleep can indeed be an escape.
In times of most intense stress from the world at large I seem to be able to sleep. I think perhaps my mind is trying to escape the stress.
I hope you don't mind if I keep hammering away at this idea of the singular. My experience is that we are in a state of constant change. My self, what "I" am seems to change to adapt constantly to circumstances. So, I find it difficult it locate a singular self. I have an ego of course, an inflated one too much of the time, but I think of that as something like a device for asserting one's presence in the world, and a very crude one at that. It's necessary, but temporal and shouldn't be taken too seriously. I think that one of the origins of our idea of self lies in monotheism.
When Moses asks who is speaking form the burning bush the voice comes back "I am." There's that singular I. As western culture developed around monotheism we also see popes, kings, and so on represent themselves as the presence of God on earth. The presence of the God. Your work seems so varied - you write poetry and songs of all kinds, you do all manner of visual art. Even your recent series of films seems the product of many selves, not a single individual. So I'm puzzled. Can you help me to understand how all of this happens from a singular identity?
Chris Mansel: I keep going back to Georges Bataille, he wrote, "Me, I exist." It is pounded into us that we are all good and evil, but we are all singular, just one man or woman. My story, The Savage Tale of Walter Seems tells the tale of a journalist who has multiple personalities. One is a journalist, one is a killer, and yet another is a holy man.
Perhaps that role of monotheism is in all of us and that is where it comes from. Perhaps the burning bush was talking back to Moses in his mind. Maybe we hear what we want to hear. It would account for the many readings of the same text and the many different versions of worship. We understand more about the chemicals in the brain now than we did then.
How this happens from a singular identity is in my opinion like The Neophyte by Durer. Maybe we are like the fresh young scholar surrounded by the more experienced and as we get older we learn to how to utilize them. But again we are all one mind. As I get older my writing and my films will become better and other artistic endeavors will become apparent.
I'd like to ask you a question I asked Neeli Cherkovski in my interview with him. I wonder if you have a favorite artist or painter and what brought about this opinion?
Jake Berry: It would be impossible to single out anything like a favorite artist. I'm reading, listening, learning all the time from new artists. There's a list at: http://www.myspace.com/jakeberry16.
If you mean painters only the list is just as long. The earliest art yet unearthed is every bit the equal to the "great masters," though I love DaVinci, all the Renaissance north and south, art from all the ancients, everything that isn't just pure commercial crap. I can't get enough of art of whatever kind. I feel the same way about philosophy, history and science. There's so much to see, hear and learn that it's frustrating knowing there will not be enough time to see it all.
Recent developments in the cognitive sciences reveal that our behavior, our emotions and thoughts, are associated with electrochemical activity in the brain. This leads back into the old debates about self-determination. To what extent are we able to make individual decisions? Or is everything we can feel or know or do the result of chemicals in the brain, their transmitters and receptors, responding to external stimulus and biological predispositions?
Chris Mansel: Any mapping of the human mind surely would include a descent into hell. As for individual decisions we must prey upon ourselves like rabid dogs and weigh the consequences but finally whether we receive council from others or not we are the Emperor in his new clothes draped in the blood of the designer and his minions. We are the final word unless we are someone without honor or purpose. A dog will follow a bone only as long as the scent or the desire allows unless you beat him to do so. As someone who suffers unimaginable headaches I can hereby say that the chemical imbalance is that descent into hell with no poet's way out, no guide to soften the rough waters. The transmitters click off and on I believe but in a situation of intense pain I believe that like a damaged nerve they simply shut down. I can only speak for myself and truthfully in the ways of science, just my belief but I tend towards the belief that hell and its torments are in the mind and its pain I feel on an occasional basis.
[Editor’s Note: Many thanks for this incredible journey through the creative mind, from the depths of Dante’s Inferno to the skies of liminal splendor. These artists are creating bridges to new worlds and new contexts that redefine the human experience and every journey they take reveals new portals, new roads or new ways of seeing and believing. Those of us who value the creative process envy and thank them, along with the adventurers who came before and will inevitably follow. Many returns. Jazz.]