A Conversation with John Pluecker and Jen Hofer
IMAGE ABOVE: Antena at the Tijuana/San Ysidro border fence. Photo courtesy of the artists.
Writers, artists, literary translators, bookmakers and activist interpreters Jen Hofer and John Pluecker make up Antena, a language justice and language experimentation collaborative. Founded in 2010, Antena is now in residence at Blaffer Museum of Art through May 10, where Hofer and Pluecker are “inhabit[ing] various spaces of the museum to explore how critical views on language can help us to reimagine and rearticulate the worlds we live in.” This includes running a bookstore that features books from independent presses highlighting work by women, people of color, queer communities and others, in addition to a organizing a busy schedule of activities. The team also prepared a series of pamphlets that outline their ideas. During CounterCurrent 2014, Antena plans a series of events around the launch of a bilingual handmade chapbook written by the members of La Colmena, a Houston-based domestic workers’ collective, which will include visits from Tijuana-based photographer Ingrid Hernández and Los Angeles-based artist Sandra de la Loza. Antena @ Blaffer is organized by Amy Powell, Cynthia Woods Mitchell Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, with Hofer and Pluecker. Hofer and Pluecker visited with A + C editor in chief Nancy Wozny about the project.
Arts + Culture: I thought it was so interesting that you both developed very similar practices apart. However did you finally find each other?
John Pluecker: Jen and I initially met in Tijuana, Mexico in 2006 at the Writing Lab on the Border, a six-week series of workshops organized by Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza. Jen’s ideas and thinking about translation, interpretation and writing blew me away from the very start. I wasn’t all that familiar with innovative or experimental literature, and meeting Jen and many other risk-taking writers from the US and Mexico at the Lab led me to re-think many of my established ideas about what language could do and about what political writers might do with language. (It also helped me to re-consider my own understandings of accessibility and engagement: I no longer think that accessible means following a pre-established script or conventions; I think experimental, playful, risk-taking work can invite people to interact and to participate in amazing ways.) After our first meeting in Tijuana, we kept running into each other: as interpreters at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the US Social Forum, as literary translators at various gatherings and as poets in readings and events. Over the years, our friendship grew to the point that we decided to join forces. On a walk up a hill in Riverside, California, during a break from interpreting at a critical race studies conference, we came up with the name Antena and thus a new journey was born.
Jen Hofer: By the time we were in Riverside to interpret a conference for the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, we had already made the decision to purchase interpreting equipment together. In fact, that conference was the first time we interpreted together using our own equipment — the Babel Box, a simple and economical system built by a collective of community radio activists. The decision to buy our own equipment and start working as a collaborative came out of many conversations about our experiences interpreting in social justice and community-based contexts, and the vision each of us had developed independently around ways to create well-functioning multilingual spaces. And then that vision expanded exponentially when we started talking about it together. And it expanded exponentially again when we began to think together about ways to create projects at the intersection of our language-based political practice and our language-based art practice, working against the traditional separation of creative projects and activist endeavors to find the spaces where those can inform each other, nourish each other, and exist simultaneously.
A + C: In your Antena @ Blaffer pamphlet titled “A Manifesto for Discomfortable Writing,” you state with such fervor that you will not separate your social practice from your art. The statement feels so clear and bold, it’s as if I can hear you speak out loud. It made me wonder if you had been asked over and over to separate these two things.
JP: It’s not so much overt demands, as it is unspoken assumptions that these two are separate. I think there is an expectation in certain social justice circles that art should ideally serve the project or campaign at hand in a didactic or straightforward way. Often, this gives rise to a discomfort or aversion around experimental art that is more open-ended in its gestures and intent. Conversely, in many art or writing communities (especially in Texas, I’d say), a commitment to working for “social justice” can seem a bit retrograde, maybe a bit simplistic or suspect, like it is not necessarily a viable project or seems too idealistic or pie-in-the-sky. I also find a lack of connections between the two communities. Of course, there are individuals who move back and forth between activist and artistic communities, but organizations or events that attempt to do this are rare, though of course there are some exceptions. One of the things that was most exciting about our recent Encuentro with invited artists, students and community members at Blaffer was seeing some of these divisions break down and seeing real communication happen at an interpersonal level.
A + C: Can you talk about what happened at the Encuentro specifically in this context?
JH: For many of the participating writers and artists — and for many of the folks who came to the panels, workshops and performances — the Encuentro was their first experience of a fully bilingual space organized around language justice principles. Artists who do not share a language were able to learn about each other’s work and directly engage in philosophically complex and boisterously inquisitive conversation, because the space was set up to make that possible, and because there were interpreters present with simultaneous interpreting equipment, as well as bilingual folks who were willing to interpret informally at other times. Language justice concepts were very present in the space, not just in the cross-language communication that was made possible, but also because we invited Tony Macías, who is a language justice advocate from Austin and worked as our lead interpreter for the Encuentro, to speak on the opening panel. He presented beautifully on the foundations of language justice, his personal experience as an activist, and some of the elements of his family history that contribute to his work. We wanted to complicate the idea that interpreters’ labor is invisible, that we are disembodied voices not actually present in the space. And we wanted to make it clear that we value the thinking and perspective of interpreters equally and alongside those of artists. At the same time, I think the experience was transformative for the interpreters who participated, in terms of illuminating for them the ways that radical aesthetic practice can have at its root some of the same goals as radical activist practice: to reimagine the world and rebuild it in a more just and humane way.
JP: I was really pleased with the way the work of the invited artists and writers consistently blurred the boundaries between visual art, performance, activism and writing. By the end of the Encuentro, those divisions seemed to be quite unimportant, and disciplinary limitations seemed to weaken. That was exciting to me, and I’ve heard from several younger people who attended that it was powerful for their thinking as well. I’m glad we had that Temporary Autonomous Zone (to use Hakim Bey’s term) where all sorts of facile divisions began to break down. And I was reminded again that young minds (regardless of age) are more able and willing to take those kinds of leaps into the unknown.
A + C: Much of the material from the pamphlets you created for the project (which are simply terrific, reading by the way), are written in manifesto form with bold and poetic statements about your ideas. What attracts you both to this form? I appreciate its historical context, but I am eager to hear how it’s a fit for you.
JH: I think that bold, enthusiastic, out-on-a-limb language can be tremendously useful, even if it’s likely that we’ll start to disagree with ourselves in the very near future (at which point new manifestos will perhaps become necessary). Sometimes stark or bombastic statements — a way of throwing ideas into relief or casting a bright light on them so as to create extreme contrast — can help us to understand what we think. It’s also really fun to write in that mode, and it’s easy to get carried away. If you can believe it, we actually toned the manifestos down quite a bit as we were revising them. Not all ideas are best articulated in manifesto form, however, which is why we also wrote two how-to guides, and we each continue to make poems as a mode of investigation. I don’t think either of us is interested in pinning down Antena’s “style” or schtick. We want to keep surprising ourselves, and keep learning.
A + C: Let’s get right down to an important aspect of the project, language justice, a term that is new to me. I wasn’t sure what it was, until Jen gave the most succinct explanation at the press opening. I instantly felt relieved. Can you do that for us now?
JH: Language justice, at heart, is the idea that each person has the right to speak in the language in which they are most comfortable. One of the foundations of this idea is a commitment to horizontality among the languages present in a space or culture — that is, that no language should dominate over any other, and that all languages are valuable as vehicles for self-expression, communication, and organizing. Language justice is a framework, really, that helps to encourage certain kinds of thinking or certain kinds of interaction. And at the same time, it’s a set of tools we can use to create spaces where all people can participate fully. Those tools include experienced interpreters and translators, simultaneous interpreting equipment, and a commitment to devoting resources to language access, among other things. In order for people to be able to communicate freely across language differences, and to bring their full selves into a space where multiple languages are present — and where, inevitably, there is a dominant language and one or more non-dominant languages — there are specific structures that can be put in place or ways to arrange a space both physically and conceptually, to make sure that everyone feels equally welcome and equally empowered to engage.
A + C: I have been thinking about this ever since you said more or less this statement, especially instances when I may have committed a touch of language injustice myself or had it thrust upon me. There have been so many times I have been told a choreographer speaks English, only to find that he/she doesn’t understand my questions. I should have done more homework to find out how best to facilitate a conversation. Why is it that we get all awkward about speaking or not speaking a language?
JP: Language is grounded in the body and in emotions. Often, we think language is purely in the mind, when in fact we have very physical responses to languages and its uses. Think of a person who grew up speaking Spanish at home and then was sent to a school in Houston where Spanish was not used or valued. This becomes a traumatic moment, and subsequently using Spanish can become a trigger or anxiety-ridden. We carry language (and its uses and abuses) in our bodies all the time. Also, being able to speak or not speak a language is tied to all kinds of phenotypic expectations. People make assumptions all the time about what languages they think you should speak (or not speak) because of your physical appearance. This adds another layer to the conundrum.
A + C: Tell me about it. As part of a wave of first-generation Italian American boomers who baffled their college Italian teachers because we couldn’t say much more than “come stai,” I’m familiar with this feeling. Just reading what you have to say about this subject is helping me resolve the shame that I carry around. There’s so much emotion around the subject.
JP: So language ability or lack of ability becomes grounded in your body, and your emotional relationship to language(s) can be extraordinarily fraught. We’ve seen this in the Interdisciplinary Art class we are teaching in our exhibit space and in many of our events; ask someone what their history is in relation to languages and emotions pour forth: stories of shame and anger, stories of loss and resistance, stories of love and longing.
JH: There can be all kinds of barriers to genuine, open cross-cultural and cross-language communication. And one of those barriers often consists of the tensions around our own fraught relationships to language. Antena believes that these tensions can be generative sites, and that it’s possible to invent spaces where that tension can be explored, if not entirely expelled, where curiosity about different modes of expression and openness to hearing something said in a different way or in a different tongue can make us able to listen to one another more profoundly. In a difficult and too often brutal world like ours, it’s crucial that we locate or create spaces where people can truly hear a variety of perspectives, spoken in a variety of languages.
A + C: You have set up a really lively book store at the Blaffer. So far, I have had several conversations that go something like this, “Where did you get that book? Blaffer. They sell books in a museum? They do now.” You been in residency for a few weeks now. How’s biz?
JP: The response has been great! I’ve been really pleased with people’s willingness to engage with our thinking, participate in events and the class, and, yes, buy books. And when they purchase books, they are not only supporting Antena and our work but also all of the small presses and writers whose books we are selling. As opposed to purchasing books from huge corporations, the money really does serve to nurture human beings along all steps of the supply chain: from the author to small presses to our amazing distributor, Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, to Antena.
JH: I also think it’s important to underline that we are not functioning as a bookstore in any traditional sense of the term. I mean, yes, the books in our space are for sale, so in that sense we are selling books in a museum. But the books in the space have been very carefully curated — significantly more so than they would be in a bookstore — not just to highlight the work of small independent presses in the U.S. and Latin America, but also within those parameters, to feature work in translation from all over the world, innovative projects by writers of color and queer writers and other folks who fall outside even the marginal canons of experimental literatures and adventurous writing from Latin America. And alongside the ways we’ve curated the books in the space, the interaction we hope to have with visitors is very different from a conventional bookselling interaction (though don’t get me wrong — we also hope to sell every book in the space!). For us, this installation is as much about the conversations we have with people who spend time in the space as it is about any of the other elements of the show. Antena @ Blaffer is our classroom in two senses: we teach classes and facilitate workshops there, but it’s also the space where we learn.
A + C: You were kind enough to select books for me to read aligned with my interests in somatics and the body. I have been thoroughly enjoying your selection. Will you do this for others?
JP & JH: Yes, with pleasure!
A + C: The reason I ask is because I enjoy having someone else pick a book for me, it gets me out of my usual book buying habit. Writing and reading is of course, like everything else, bound up in habit. Much of your work helps people look beyond their habits, to try another way into a writing or reading experience. I offer your pamphlet How to Write (More) as evidence. I’d like to hear you speak about that approach.
JH: Antena exists for a range of reasons, but partly because we want to look and experience beyond our own habits. We believe in experimentation — a sort of laboratory or investigative model — and we believe in a willingness to be deeply affected by people, places, or phenomena we encounter. Welcoming the unexpected and recognizing how much we can learn from what we do not yet know (and perhaps do not even know we need to know) are central elements of our individual practice as writers, translators, and artists, and we bring this perspective to Antena as well.
JP: When we were first thinking about the form Antena’s first installation would take at Project Row Houses in Spring 2012, I sat down with Rick Lowe to present some ideas. I was nervous, and had a kind of 10 point plan ready for him. After going through all the ideas, he said something along the lines of: Keep it simple. Do something that will be productive for you and for your thinking, and that will give it an energy. Other people will be drawn to it, because of that sense of it being in process, open, unfinished. I’ve been mulling over that advice since then. I think Antena is still figuring out what Antena actually is, which is a positive thing. We don’t want to get stuck in habit or automaticity. So here’s to continuing to find news ways to think, to write and to intervene in this everfull world of ours.
A + C: Much of what the two of you have written and said has certainly intervened in my own thinking. While I was in the midst of reading your materials, I had two experiences that made me think of a more expanded idea about translation. One occured during my usual life as a dance critic, when it suddenly occurred to me that I serve as a translator of sorts, and that all translation is a bit of an approximation. Even when people are speaking English to each other things are being lost. Then in a second experience, I was listening to a talk being translated. I found myself so taken with how theatrical it was, and how the translator was listening and reacting to what he was thinking. The final result was really a third thing. Then I wandered into your pamphlet, A Manifesto for Ultratranslation, which so vividly describes the murky waters of translation. I see much of what you have written as a way of freeing us from some of the rigid ways people have held themselves into a system that wasn’t exactly working. You seem to be saying to embrace the practice’s imperfections.
JP: Yes, definitely. Your examples from your lived experience are really beautiful, and it’s so exciting to hear how these ideas are percolating into your practice as a writer. We see all writing as translation, all translation as writing. We are interested in pushing back against the assumption of an “original” in writing or art, since everything is a representation and often a remix or a mashup at that, whether explicitly acknowledged or not.
JH: At the same time, we recognize that there are differences between the kinds of translation that happen in the moment of writing a poem or a critical text about dance, or making an art piece, or engaging in conversation (processes of mutual understanding and misunderstanding) with another person — what we might think of as a kind of figurative or metaphorical translation — and the processes that go into the written transfer of text from one language into another — that is, text translation or literary translation. I hesitate to say “translation proper” because it’s as improper as it is proper, though there are certain guidelines, ethics and parameters to which we hold ourselves as translators. Yet to say that there is such a thing as the actual act of translation, of transfer or transposition from one language to another, is not to negate the many other activities that also constitute translation.
JP: As you suggested, Nancy, we are pointing to the joys of failure, the delight in imperfection and impropriety, while at the same time launching a volley of attacks on this oft-repeated idea that something is “lost in translation.” This phrase is repeated so often and so unthinkingly! It’s really maddening! Its repetition leads to a sense of translation as a failed enterprise, as a doomed practice, something suspect and suspicious, easily maligned. This thinking leads to a distrust of translation and a lack of recognition of its power — though at the same time we are excited to think about the wondrous possibilities of working inside a “failed enterprise” or “doomed practice,” even as we don’t believe for a second that translation is any less viable because it is potentially “failed” or “doomed.” In the U.S., it also leads to publishers being unwilling or hesitant to publish translation: figures suggest that only 3% of published lit in the U.S. is in translation. We are asking for a more open embrace of what is foreign to us, while also insisting that that foreignness not be entirely domesticated or completely assimilated. It’s a challenge, but I think it’s one that Texas, and the wider world, desperately need to confront.