Interview with John Seal Part 1

CONVERSATION WITH JOHN SEAL PART 1: You can slay me with a bowl of strawberries so long as you have really struggled with them, and I can taste that struggle– the taste of hard-fought empathy.

2016_JS_Installation_view_1_JS-085John Seal’s work is currently on view in a show at Johann Koenig in Berlin from June 7th to July 9th.

Nilo Goldfarb:

on the wordplay in the title of your last show, is While There is Still Life to Live a provocation?

John Seal:

The title, While There Is Still Life to Live, is meant as a reminder of the physical world around us. I wanted some device to initiate a discussion about the tentativeness of the act of looking at and experiencing the common everyday “other”– that universe outside ourselves. Not the fantastic and terrifying “other” that is always coming to get us in politics, religion, and movies; but the infinite, the infinitesimal and the myriad things of the universe. For example a teacup that lives on a shelf in our kitchen may, in a certain sense, belong to us, but is not a part of us. It is merely an object in the universe. It needs to be observed, handled, and talked about to become a part of our world. It needs to be communicated to become a part of us. But even then, the object-spoken (the mediated teacup, the teacup I told you about) is only ever extremely partial and incomplete. It is not the original object, nor is it an echo of that object. The teacup I told you about is a teacup in its own right, and the original object that I tried to relate will always find ways to thwart one’s best efforts to reconcile the two, to merge them into one. It will always find ways of reminding one how poorly one understood it; how it is actually a different teacup now, or you are a different observer, or the light has changed, or the shelf that it sits on has changed its role as an ordering force in the universe and has subtly altered the meaning of all other objects within its influence. This game of cat and mouse is the basis of what we might call experience. It is a beautiful, inexhaustible process that is always overflowing with opportunity to create meaning.

“While There Is Still Life to Live” is meant to remind the reader or viewer that this is an ongoing process. It is active: an activity. It takes effort and energy. What, for example, a pineapple is, is not a forgone conclusion. I think that there are far too many situations in which we are too quick to let the object become an entirely epistemological entity, a piece of information. We are, perhaps, too often too happy to let the encyclopedia entry on pineapples stand for the specific and actual pineapple in our lives. It is so deliciously easy and satisfying to let a quick Internet search define something for us– to feel that we know it, to feel that we conquered it (knowledge is funny this way). The ubiquity and ease are the dangerous part. This is the part where we need the reminder. The digital world is an extremely partial, limited and very human “world”. It is merely a collection of what its various contributors have told us they have observed, and for the most part they have merely observed what someone before them had reported to have observed. These definitions can be handy pointers for further meditation or first-hand observation, but when we cling too tightly to them our worlds quickly become ossified and we cease to live. We love to consume. It is very easy to consume and very difficult to create. The universe as a tidy network of information tidbits is an attractively safe viewpoint to take.

To get back to your question, the title, including the punny play on words, is meant more to taunt or goad rather than provoke. Provocation sounds too “radical,” as though there is some specific direction I am trying to push. I more want to irritate one into disagreeing with me just enough to be forced to squirm around my assertions– to try to press the viewer/reader into trying to put the evidence back together the way they thought it was supposed to fit; and hopefully see how ill the fit is, see how many gaps are left. I am not meaning to be diabolical; it is not meant to be some kind of empty irony. The urge comes out of a deep sense of concern and, well, love, really. Love for humans, and love for all the little things in the universe.


WHEN still is an adverb, TO WHAT, and are you thinking about the total devaluation of life? 

from Beckett’s Malone Dies:

i began to play with what i saw. people ask nothing better than to play, certain animals too. all went well at first, they all came to me, pleased that someone should want to play with them. if i said, now i need a hunch-back, immediately one came running, proud as punch of that his fine hunch that was going to perform. it did not occur to him that i should ask him to undress. soon enough i found myself alone.

John Seal:

If i understand your question correctly, “Still” is an adverb to “Live,” which in this instance becomes an invocation of ongoing activity into an uncertain future. So, in this sense, the adverb as it is used in the title (there is even yet now Life to Live) is directly in opposition to the notion of stasis that is suggested in the alternate reading of “Still” as an adjective describing “Life.” I intended this to work in a couple different ways. One is to suggest that the quietude of still-life is not at all a stasis, but a labored activity. The still-life painting itself is a point (or set of points) on at least two distinct trajectories. There is the trajectory of the painter: the looking, the thinking and the effort to translate or express that brought her/his brush down on the canvas. And there is the trajectory of the viewer who must interpret the painter’s activity and carry whatever of it that she/he can into the future. At no point is the still-life a fixed entity. It is never an image, per se. The brushstrokes are a set of questions posed by the painter, challenging her/his own abilities to perceive, and testing the validity of received wisdom on how to see and paint: how to reduce, codify and quantize. It is also a test of the ever-changing notions of what constitutes the important and essential aspects of an object–what about an object is worth talking about? A still-life is quiet, but boiling. Even as a small child, still-life struck me this way: anything but still. The other way I had hoped the still/still equation would work was to press the urgency of looking. To press the urgency of the possibility that there may come a time when a painting is just a picture, and all objects will be reduced to mere information. This is a centuries-old fear, but not invalid. Just like the fear of falling off a cliff while walking along a narrow, crumbling mountain ledge is not invalidated just because thousands of people before in the same situation had the same sinking feeling. In fact, it is probably one of the many things that have kept humans here, alive.


WHEN still life is a noun, does the provocation hang on an apocalyptic prognosis? or, after humanity, what will be to make of still(-)life?


Apocalyptic? No. It is more, “look both ways before crossing the street” than “The End Is Near. Cower Before My God or Be Damned!” The apocalypse is a monolithic event, a fable, a stick to reinforce the carrot. What I am proposing is an ongoing vigilance, multi-veined and constantly recurrent. Though, it’s not that I am trying to flatten it all out by making it pedestrian, it’s just that the pedestrian is the site of my argument. Our world happens in front of us, all around us, near to hand. All that is human is not just the echoes of the gods on Olympus. This is the importance of still-life. You can slay me with a bowl of strawberries so long as you have really struggled with them, and I can taste that struggle– the taste of hard-fought empathy.


i am struck by the awkward persistence of convention in the show. despite the fact that the frames have become the boundaries of the objects that might conventionally be delimited on the surface of the canvas, there is a careful attention in your material choices to maintain the conventional plausibility of the “frame” and the “canvas.” that is, everything from the oversized screws on the giant canvas to the exposed nesting of integral canvases inside the frames, bespeaks the plausibility of the these paintings as conventional objects.

then there’s a way in which the stratification of domains – frame / canvas, skin / support – is extended to allow for convention to become a totally conscious, symbolic gesture. your suggestion of a cat and mouse game seems apt in describing the mimetic play in the work. i am thinking first about how these objects seem to appear as pictographic representations of objects – stark graphic representations as literal frames. the frames literalize the presence of the signifier. the dramatic lighting upsets the ability to measure the paintings against each other, or even to understand the difference between what is being affected with paint, and what is the “effects” of light. this makes the spatial appearance of these paintings pretty turbulent and difficult to resolve. it is difficult to contain the painting then, in the way that a painting is usually contained. so part of what i sense happening is an upsetting of the order of things. can we stop there? did i go far enough? am i getting it wrong? 


Hmmm. I do not think you are wrong in pointing out the the topsy-turvy-ness of the interplay between painting and frame, the container and contained, symbolic representation and material fact. However, I would not say that upsetting the established order things was my goal, really. It is more that I wanted to work with established conceptions about framing, and language (verbal narrative as well as painting’s many visual conventions for mimesis and representation) to test, and perhaps tease, our preconceived notions of how these things work– just how rigid are our assumptions about a frame’s role in domesticating a painting? What do we feel is the proper relationship between verbal language and the coding and decoding of the interplay of brushstrokes? On the one hand, I feel, at a base-level, that these conventions draw very silly boundaries, utterly factitious divisions between painting and sculpture, content and container, even symbol and fact. On the other hand, I know that these are the very suppositions through which an artwork generates meaning; these divisions are meaning itself, as in Genesis where the birth of the world is told as the narrative of “the word” making finer and finer divisions among things until an entire Earth is revealed. So, tradition must be preserved if critique is ever to take place. This doesn’t mean that one must blindly or mutely honor tradition but, without some shared concepts, it is very difficult to engage in a meaningful conversation. The cultural conventions are the materials we work with and build on, they are indispensable. They may be flawed, annoying, even destructive, but without them we wouldn’t have much. The humanities are a game based on the examining of our limited abilities to understand anything; or at least I wish they were viewed this way.

Your point about the lighting, well, it is always confusing looking at a painting. The decision on how to light the work was based on trying to highlight that, trying to highlight the inherent honesty of that; and to battle the almost de facto notion that the grayish-green wash of fluorescent light is somehow any less a dramatic device, is somehow more truthful and democratic than directional, controlled spot-lighting. In the 1960s when fluorescent light was still fairly new, and connected in aesthetic terms to science and positivist advancement, I think it was genuinely believed to be the light of reason, washing away the imaginative assertions of a painting to expose the object for what it truly was empirically. This is patently silly, and can be dismissed as theatrically idealistic posing. Paintings are susceptible to very small changes in light. Light can alter not only the look, but the reception and meaning of a painting. This is one of the most delicately beautiful potentials of the medium, and it was something I wanted to exploit.


is it possible to talk about the work by talking about what is happening at different levels (i.e the surface, the frame, the installation) or are you trying to evince a messier semiotics of painting? 

Because of the above, I’m not sure we have any other way of discussing the intricacies of any artwork without resorting to delimiting terminology like surface, frame, and installation, etc. I’m not sure if I have any interest in getting rid of the divisions, actually. To me, at this moment in time, the goal would seem more a reordering of the connections between these terms–and their implications. So, yes, I would say that one would need to begin by looking at what each “level” is trying to achieve, and how that might connect with and alter its bordering properties (i.e. what influence a frame shaped like a banana might have on a non-objective patchwork of color, and so on). Think of it as a mosaic. Each thing must be contemplated individually in order to see its place in the whole. Sorry. This is such an obvious statement, but so necessary to make.

Excerpts from a Compilation on Aging

The following segments are passages from a compilation called Aging, amassed by Emily Toder, composed of sentences from The New Yorker, and published by Gauss PDF in 2016. The concept initially emerged from a somewhat petty grammatical curiosity observed of the magazine’s in-house style rules, and grew gradually into an informal index of what it is to age; to age in this time and place; and to be described in the midst of that, in a uniform prose style. In short, the magazine’s convention of inserting a subject’s age as a nonessential appositive (that is, between a pair of commas) unintentionally and awkwardly hints at the arbitrary, dynamic, relative, and overall nonsensical nature of describing achievement, aspiration, or overall personhood, on the basis of this marker. By reading the sentences in succession, and in a numerical (verging on) chronological order, we watch and maybe laugh or cry as people “age” and effectively but unwittingly challenge “age” itself.

His two other sons, she said, are Patrick, known as Mouse, who is a twenty-one-year-old sophomore at Harvard, and is planning to get married in June, and Gregory, known as Gigi, who is eighteen and a freshman at St. John’s, at Annapolis.

(Their romance took a turn for the star-crossed in September when they were arrested in Saugerties, New York; according to a police blotter, Smith was charged for driving a stolen truck without a license or insurance while carrying heroin, and Ferreira, who is twenty-one, was charged for carrying ecstasy and resisting arrest. There was also a warrant out for Smith’s arrest in a neighboring county.)

“There is no future in Moldova,” Olga, who is twenty-one and studies cosmetology, said.

Hutchinson, an Army specialist who is twenty-one and has a ten-month-old boy named Kamani, was arrested when she didn’t show up for her unit’s flight out.

Kohistany, who is twenty-one, fled with her family to Virginia, in 1997, to escape the Taliban.

The real example of courage in this story, however, comes from Portman’s son Will, who is twenty-one years old.

Almost all of them are older than the defendant, who is twenty- one; he was nineteen when he was charged with carrying out the Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three people, and having taken part in the murder of an M.I.T. police officer.

I had been warned that Mary Katherine, who is twenty-one, didn’t much like reporters, and I couldn’t blame her.

His son, Maged, who is twenty-one, and frequently accompanies his father to the front lines, sat in the living room with us— alternately soaking up the political arguments and projecting an air of casual indifference.

Novak (Nole to his family), the eldest of three sons—Marko, who is twenty-two, and Djordje, who is eighteen, also play professional tennis—enjoyed what he described as a “beautiful” childhood.

Moyer and his wife have eight children, the oldest of whom is a sophomore infielder at UC-Irvine, and is less than two years younger than Moyer’s youngest teammate, Tyler Chatwood, who is twenty-two, and, yes, was also unborn when Moyer débuted for the Cubs.

Gallagher, who is twenty-two, is a bit more seasoned (and maybe therefore more waggish) than Groff.

Five soldiers, including Jeremy Morlock, the smiling man in the picture, who is twenty-two years old, are awaiting courts-martial for the murder of three Afghan civilians; seven other soldiers had lesser, related charges led against them, including drug use.

Susan Kahane, who is twenty-two, graduated from Columbia last spring.

She and her older brother, Sean, who is twenty-two and studying math and computer science, refer to their parents as Rob and Joyce.

“I have a daughter who is twenty-two years old. My husband needs me and my daughter needs me.”

“I might get my son Austin, who is twenty-two and studying writing at Vermont College, to help me write the screenplay,” he said.

After a night in prison, Zenghi Bar Khan exchanged his son, Rizwanullah, who is twenty-two, for himself.

Auster, who is twenty-two, is already at work on her second album and is slated to appear in two films next year.

Smith, who is twenty-two, is an inoffensive singer who has mastered the moves of his elders without adding any idiosyncrasies.

The week before Bouazizi’s death, Hamada Ben Amor, who is twenty-two and goes by the name El Général, used a handheld camera to tape himself singing the song, a baseball cap pulled over his eyes.

Erin Bixler, who is twenty-two and recently graduated from the University of Michigan, and Katye Rhett, who is twenty-one and is entering her senior year at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, are the form that J.Crew’s response to this deficiency has taken.

DeBaise, who is twenty-two, wore a crew-neck T-shirt and a baseball cap advertising a brand of vodka.

Two of its founders are Nate Levine, who is twenty-two, and Zac Bookman, who is thirty-three.

Five prospective buyers have been heard from: a retired real-estate salesman, a lumber magnate, a broker, a movie actor, and Esmond Bradley Martin of 1 Sutton Place, who is twenty-two.

“Today, we’re dealing with a lot of idioms,” Ben Polk, who is twenty-three, told his students. “Can you tell me about your first date?”

On Wednesday night, at the Country Music Association Awards, in Nashville, Taylor Swift, who is twenty-three, was honored with a de facto lifetime-achievement award, and George Strait, who is sixty-one, was named Entertainer of the Year.

Inside, Gaga, who is twenty-three and speaks with a prim grandeur that might have come from watching old movies, sank into a nubby upholstered seat.

The Sinfonia Iuventus concert, which took place on the premises of Polish Radio, with Marzena Diakun conducting, offered a glimpse of the youngest Polish generation, in the form of Ignacy Zalewski, who is twenty-three.

Murphy, who is twenty-three, was promoted to principal dancer this year, as was Marcelo Gomes, a big Brazilian who started out a little soft and goofy, and has reined in, and gathered power, without losing his sweet openness.

Scarlett Johansson, who is still only twenty-three, has appeared in an amazing number of movies.

Owens, who is twenty-three, grew up in Daytona Beach, racing BMX bikes against the neighborhood boys, until she started taking them on in stock cars that she helped build.

After a sensational rookie season in the National Basketball Association, Yao, who is twenty-three, had returned to China in early May with one clear objective: to lead the national team to the title in the Asian Basketball Championship, which serves as the regional qualifier for the 2004 Olympics.

Rogers, who is twenty-three, was relieved of his fastball-throwing duties with the St. Louis Cardinals organization at the end of spring training, and he has now been assigned to Boston’s Sarasota affiliate, where, throwing mostly knuckleballs, he allowed just one earned run in his first seven innings of work.

Beckett, who is twenty-three and six-five, has the contemptuous air of the overgifted athlete, but, having earned the sneer now— he’d added nine more strikeouts, and by the time he was done had surrendered but three runs in his last twenty-nine innings, along with two shutouts—he appeared to forgive us a little at the end.

“I felt that I had developed an unhealthy addiction to lurking and creeping,” Cederberg, who is twenty-three, told me.

“It’s like being an athlete,” Snute, the Norwegian, who is twenty-three with shaggy blond hair, said at a pre-tournament photo shoot.

Zuckerberg, who is twenty-three, sipped lemonade and chose his words about Google carefully, saying, “On the highest level, we’re both trying to supply people with information that interests them.”

Danishgar, who is twenty-three, a graduate student at CUNY in political science, and one of the founders of a small feminist group called Women for Afghan Women, pointed out that after the liberation of Mazar-e-Sharif unveiled women were celebrating in the streets with men.

But the Mayor’s well-known commitment to philanthropy is one to which Georgina, who is twenty-three, is gravitating.

Harris, who is twenty-three, was a breacher in Iraq; he opened doors in the towns that his unit passed through, sometimes with a sledgehammer, sometimes with a shotgun blast, sometimes with C-4 explosives.

Bashir’s wife and his daughter, who is twenty-three, were in Amman, and he had told them to stay there until the war was over.


had a dream about a rolodex of some sort. title it “rolodex dream”, refer to it in my head that way. document begins with “ever since the rolodex dream i’ve…”.


On the psychogeography of cities and the internet


Screen Shot 2017-04-22 at 1.54.33 PM

Img[1]: Maze screensaver from Microsoft ‘95

[1] Situationism and the Internet

The enduring legacy of the Situationist dérive for the 21st century may include its status as a method for breaking out of the psychic boundaries that delimit one’s daily life to an unchanging routine. In a reflection on the psychogeography of Tijuana, Aurelio Meza quotes Guy Debord’s observation via the text of Chombart de Lauwe that over the course of a year, a student’s daily movements throughout the city of Paris formed “a small triangle with no significant deviations, the three apexes of which are the School of Political Sciences, her residence and that of her piano teacher.” Debord had expressed “outrage at the fact that anyone’s life can be so pathetically limited,” so he proposed the dérive—“a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences”—as a method for expanding one’s psychogeographical limits. Where capitalism and modernity had together conspired to make narrow psychic hallways out of a large metropolis, surrealism would break things open and make the city a world again.

“On the psychogeography of cities and the internet”

Kelly Akashi: SandCandle.jpg

The first candle I made, in 2012, cast in a bucket of sand. This image was taken during open studios at USC in  2013 where I first tried stacking furniture to display several handmade candles, wax objects, and images.