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Zoom in on the Detail: An Interview with Chris Campanioni photo

The 550-page the Internet is for real by poet, activist, educator, and underwear model Chris Campanioni struck me earlier this year as a much-needed treatise on "post-Internet" culture. Yes, I found its length worth it, building for me several questions about authenticity, writerly performance, the erotics of catalogues, and nostalgia. Last month he gracefully answered them via Skype from New York City, after a quick tour of the art in my Indiana living room.

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Campanioni: My god, I love your mannequin.

Case: He was a Christmas present from a friend.

Such an ingenious idea, to have a mannequin as the coat rack.

I throw jackets on him. There’s a pride flag on him right now. This hipster hiking store was closing in town, and they had these mannequins with the most defined packages I’ve ever seen. There’s the bulge, but this one has a defined dick on it, too, and I was like ‘what is going on.’

A mark of distinction. Did you ever see the bad ’80s movie Mannequin?


There’s no hot male bulges, but it’s a good, cheesy movie. In general—and maybe this comes through in my writing aesthetic—I’m obsessed with cheap ’80s culture.

I was born in ’89, so most of that is just my parents’ nostalgia.

It’s pretty much the same for me. I was born in ’85, but I think it’s true of most people that you end up obsessed with what your parents were.

Like, my mom had a red fanny pack, and now they’re back. I feel like fashion loops are getting shorter and shorter, which is fine as long as we don’t get stuck with bootcut jeans.

[laughs] “As long as we don’t get stuck with bootcut jeans,” that should be the title of the interview.

[laughs] I’ll write it down… I’ve read a couple other interviews you’ve done about the Internet is for real, and it seems like a lot of people are interested in the essay vs. prose poetry vs. poetry. But that conversation feels really stale to me, especially after Citizen and 300 Arguments.

You’re right. I’m always scratching my head because this is nothing new. What people consider hybrid writing today, people were publishing as novels forty years ago. …I think literature and art were more progressive thirty or forty years ago, at least in the sense that they acknowledged the fiction of these generic markers and didn’t feel the need to label or even remark upon the convergence of lyric essay and poem, etc. I like entertaining those discussions because I think it’s important to keep returning to the conversation we’re having, but unfortunately they don’t often advance toward this meta-discussion about the fallacy of thinking in unproductive ways about modes of writing. It always felt natural to me to write in different modes, and I think that naturalness is an inclination many writers have. But often the institutions make you choose. I don’t have an MFA, but I know you have to choose between poetry and fiction. Those markers are so arbitrary.

It feels spurred by marketing. I’d rather talk about what’s there. Something that struck me as more important is the merging of “scholarly” and “creative” output. I hope to see this evolving, especially as tenure-track jobs [in writing] continue to dissipate. Is this a trend?

Last weekend I was at the Center for Media and Celebrity Studies for their annual symposium in Manhattan. I presented on edging, intimacy, and the thirst trap—all sorts of things we’re familiar with through Instagram and other social media. It’s not something you expect to see at an academic conference, but how I treat academic writing is how I treat creative writing. I was alternating between optimism and complete disappointment because toward the end of the symposium, one of the keynote speakers stood up and talked about how he had a light bulb moment, like “the one time I wrote something and I felt like I had a real stake in it, people actually read that thing.” The symposium devolved in the last panel to a discussion on how academics can be more popular in mainstream culture, how they can build their brand. But I don’t think that’s the right way to think of it. At the basic level it’s about taking something that’s so insular and getting outside its bubble. For any type of writing there’s a basic necessity of putting yourself out there. To be vulnerable, because no one can really be critically detached from their subject. That’s a charade more and more academics are realizing. It’s dangerous to be “neutral,” especially regarding things that demand taking a stand.

Yes, it’s interesting watching academia catch up.

It’s definitely been gradual. On the individual level within these institutions, there’s so much of a lag, and people have to ask themselves why they got into academia anyway. Shouldn’t we be caring more about students’ needs? Rather than reproducing inequality and the traditions of hierarchy of power, that should be increasingly obsolete?

There’s the idea, especially on Twitter, that positive change is inevitable, but it’s not. I’m really encouraged by the young faculty and PhD students I’ve met who are actively engaging with these questions. It’s a hopeful situation, but it’s hopeful because of work.

I teach a class on online intimacy at Baruch, which is pretty much what formed the basis of me conceiving such a big book like the Internet is for real, and in recent semesters students have grappled with the questions I’ve posed to them about post-Internet culture. They’re thinking about the future. Many come with this idea that the technology of the Internet will eventually break, and because there’s a lack of intimacy or empathy online, that will fix itself. And I hate to play the bad guy, but we know that’s not true. It’s important to remember that it’s a process on the individual level to be accountable. There has to be institutional change, yes, but there has to be individual accountability.

The poem “I call it post-Internet” is almost dead center in your book. It struck me as a manifesto for the project. Reading it I kept getting flashbacks to José Esteban Muñoz’s idea of a queer utopia. Do you see post-Internet culture as a utopia or on the way towards one?

I love that you mention Muñoz. He’s a Cuban queer theorist and a touchstone for both my research and my creative activity. That being said, I hadn’t thought of queer futurities with that poem specifically, but it’s interesting because the name “post-Internet” itself is a linguistic way of dealing with that term. A coming after. On the way toward. But also the currency of how we disseminate ourselves. The publication of the book as “post-”. I think my interest in combining the product with the process is a good example here. The product’s power relies on the fact that you can track its movements of consciousness, that infinite gleaming of consciousness before it becomes a finite idea.

I feel proud of that poem, because one of the best things about poetry is the shock of surprising yourself when you don’t know how the poem’s going to move. For me it was trying to explain a term that everyone was asking about, moving toward the erotics of baiting, Marilyn Monroe being pictured reading Leaves of Grass, moving toward the politics of migration. I was impressed with myself for converging all those things in a short poem.

Well, it’s short for you, but I think others would call it long, still.

[laughs] I was hoping people could get productively lost in this book.

No matter where I was in the book, I could always feel certain ideas circling, but never in a tiring way. It compounded.

The book as constellation, as nebula. The miracle of the Internet as a creative person is that you can zoom in on the detail, the fragment, and recontectualize it, juxtaposed with whatever else you’re sliding into its frame. There’s so much room for that jigsaw creativity. In a way I’m interested in what we think of as the detail. Detail at its etymological roots comes from the French, which means to tailor, which means to cut. The focus and the fragment are inherently linked in ways we otherwise wouldn’t consider.

That reminds me; one of the most interesting places of those picture-in-a-pictures as online gallery is eBay. Sometimes I go on there and look for vintage Polaroids. To see the photograph of the photograph for the ad on eBay… A few years ago in, I think, ArtForum, the artist Matt Connors published a portfolio of his series Interaction. He went on eBay looking for gym shorts for sale, and he’d literally crop out details of dick prints to make them art.

I would complicate that in the sense that in one way we’re living in a world where artwork is no longer about originals with “aura,” but about a series of copies. But the digital copy is not only more original to me, you could also say it’s new because it’s been imbued with metadata. Every time we screenshot something and save it on our laptop, it’s new in a sense that the file has slightly altered. What’s interesting about that project is that when you keep deferring an original—and this is an intimate charge, digital lust—it’s always what you can’t actually get that constitutes desire. The viewer is a viewer/voyeur. In the details of the images of dicks, you also consider what isn’t presented. Who do those dicks belong to? Where did this image come from? This is how audiences create a narrative, how it coheres into intimacy.

Something about that project that interested me was the seriality of it, how it’s photo after photo of basically the same thing. It turns into a catalogue, which, as I’m speaking, kind of reminds me of c-in2’s website.

How often have I scrolled through that, quite literally to see myself through the last eleven years? It’s wild.

You know I’m a brand admirer. It’s sometimes dizzying to see photo after photo after photo of briefs or jockstraps, and in the back of my brain I can’t help thinking “oh, that’s Chris, I’ve read his book!”

I love what you say about this as catalogue. In a way seriality is something I think accretes meaning by the simple nature of accumulation. That’s also why I’m interested in lists. How can you cohere seemingly disparate things and track that digression? You can make the illusion of coherence through a list. There’s something magical to reiteration.

Accumulation reminds me of what I think is a common experience of young gay boys in Kmart, going into the underwear aisle and absorbing image after image of these packaged packages, learning. That kind of awakening through reinforcement, like, I keep having this reaction to this type of image, what does that mean?

My earlier book, Death of Art, considers how the experience of déjà vu for our generation has been completely made into an everyday experience. Otherwise we’d think of it as something that comes out of the blue, but because of how we cruise and interact on the Internet everyday experiences are becoming déjà vu because it’s an uncanny resemblance of something that you don’t know if you actually experienced it or if you dreamed it or if you imagined it—and all those things converge in and off the Internet.

Is there a connection between déjà vu and nostalgia for nostalgia?

What I can say about nostalgia in our economy of unlimited images is that photographs engender a natural inclination toward nostalgia. Sontag’s written about this. Your question makes sense because when I experience déjà vu there’s also a kind of hurt, because you think you lost something even if you never had it.

To go back a little bit, the first piece in Death of Art talks about modeling at c-in2 and having the passage of time not feel like a passage of time. Has that changed at all in the last couple years?

What I was describing there is what people now refer to as the flattening of time and space through the Internet, this unilateral flattening. That essay was very specifically referring to an experience in a studio and the duration of getting shot for that many years, but I think everything I’ve written is shaped by the different things I’ve done in life—including modeling. I also feel like today everyone is a model. I started writing books about that specific experience, but in 2019 they’re probably more relatable.

I feel though like modeling for c-in2 is a very specific type of photography. Like, “here’s the product, there’s a person in the product, but it’s about the product.” And then there’s fashion photography, art photography, etc. Do you see a connection between everyday snapshot photography and the fashion game?

The intimacy of fashion photographs is not necessarily what you don’t see, but the narrative you bring to the context. What’s interesting to me about a fashion photograph is everything but me, everything but the subject. …like, the Internet is for real because of everything—the routers, the electricity, the people who build the machines—that gets hidden for our pleasure.

…In your poem from Hobart, “give us the runway & we will / lift the world,” there’s this image at the start of wearing briefs that aren’t yours at the casting call in conversation with a photograph’s disassembling and the desire to disappear. I’m wondering in the time of deep fakes and Photoshop, does a photograph without an original aid in the act of disappearing, or does that make it worse?

This is a question I’m often being asked or always asking myself, like, why the desire for so much self-erasure while putting yourself out there in performative ways on and off the Internet? The negotiation between presence and absence is useful, but it’s not productive to think of it as a binary. One of the blurbs I was fortunate to receive before the book came out was from Tommy Pico, who cut to the heart of this 550-page book: the difference between wanting to be seen and wanting to be known, and not knowing what’s more terrifying. I think the merging between knowing and seeing is a type of voyeurism.

I think there’s a similar voyeurism between say, looking at pictures of underwear models on the Internet and reading a book of poetry. In both cases there’s a desire to get to know somebody, but it’s happening in very different ways, and likely for different reasons. As a person who’s had both out in the world, how do you feel on the other end of that?

Writing is an opportunity for me to show—any time you write anything you’re aware of audience, you’re aware that somebody is going to read it, so you manufacture nonfiction…

…and all writing is performative…

…right, we don’t even need to go there. But I’d say that one of the functions of the writing process is that anyone who comes to my work might see something other than the images that we’ve been inculcated with. It gives you a parallel narrative to compare with the realities you’ve crafted based on representations. Writing displaces representation.

Another poem I want to talk about is “The Only Thing.” I feel like there’s a trend in art photography—with people like McGinley, Pierson, Kost—of recreating a snapshot, a pre-fabricated organic moment. That seems close to fashion photography to me, and it reminds me of playwriting. As we talk about persona and performance, how important is it to you to make your writing feel like a snapshot?

I actually think I go the other way. I want to be aware of the pose and to show the process of its production so readers feel like they’re on the inside of the come-on. I want them to be taken into my confidence, to share in the moment of persona creation. In Heavenly Bodies, Richard Dyer says that appearance is thought of as real, but even more real is the manufacturing of the real. The process can’t be artificial because it creates the artifice.

It sounds very Warhol to me, maybe obviously.

Yeah. He’s fascinating because you never knew if he was putting you on or actually sincere. It shares a lot with camp culture. You show yourself to such a degree that you end up hiding yourself. I’m interested in that exaggeration and merging two seemingly disparate things. You get so big but you end up disappearing.