Or, Why Did Paul Chan Publish a Book About a Dictator’s Speeches?
Paul Chan is fully aware how strange it might seem, in 2012, to publish a book on Saddam Hussein’s 1970s speeches about democracy. But as an artist and now publisher, Chan found the publication of On Democracy by Saddam Hussein “perversely pleasurable” and “profoundly confusing,” especially on the eve of a US election and as we put distance between our time and Hussein’s. But he’s not glib in the endeavor: the idea for the project was sparked by a late 2002 unsanctioned trip to Iraq with a peace group, one that has sparked art projects such as the film Baghdad In No Particular Order.
An artist represented in the Walker’s collection and in past exhibitions, including Event Horizon (2009–2011) and The Quick and the Dead (2009), Chan published the book, in both paper and digital forms, with Badlands Unlimited, the press he founded in 2010, and the Deste Foundation in Athens. The keynote speaker at the late September New York Art Book Fair—which we’re previewing during our Over-Booked event—Chan took some time to discuss the book, the “fluid” and strategic ways Hussein thought about democracy, and what lessons these speeches might offer us today. This interview launches Lowercase P: Artists & Politics, a series on the personal politics of artmakers that’ll be updated weekly between now and Election Day.
Paul Schmelzer: In 2002, you went on an unsanctioned trip to Iraq with a peace group. In the acknowledgements of the book, you write, “We wanted to stop a war before it began. We failed, of course, but the experience of working with the activists and the citizens of Iraq on the eve of the U.S. invasion forever changed how I practice what we call politics.” What were your experiences in Iraq? How did it change how you practiced politics, and further, did it change how you approach making art?
Paul Chan: That’s a doozy of a first question. I met Jeff [Severns Guntzel, now a Minneapolis-based journalist] through a mutual friend, Dan Sinker. At the time I was writing for Punk Planet, Dan’s great zine, about art and labor. At the time, in the mid ’90s, there was a real resurgence of labor in America with part-time teachers and graduate students each coming together to unionize. The AFL-CIO began pumping in money to train younger people in organizing, and there was a lot of energy around what people were calling “new labor.” One day Dan told me, “You should meet my friend Jeff, who’s working with this great group, Voices in the Wilderness.” So I said, “Sure.”
I met Jeff in a crappy Mexican restaurant in Chicago, and we talked for three and a half, four hours about Voices in the Wilderness [now Voices for Creative Nonviolence]. Already in the air at the time were indications that the US was going to invade Iraq. Jeff was telling me that the group was planning on going to Iraq on the eve of the planned invasion.
At this point, no one knew when the invasion was going to happen. But Voices in the Wilderness had been going to Iraq since the mid-’90s, bringing aid and medicine as a form of protest against the sanctions against Iraq. So they already had a network on the ground in Baghdad and other places in Iraq. They were planning on going back, except this time they were doing it not to protest against the sanctions but against what we now know as an illegal, definitely an immoral, war. I was so moved by what they were doing that I said: Whatever I can do to help, I’d be happy to.
Schmelzer: Were you invited as a writer for Punk Planet or as an artist? Or does it matter?
Chan: I was invited because Jeff thought that I could be of use on the ground in Iraq. I knew PowerPoint, I knew Photoshop, I knew some of the technical things that they needed to run a campaign on the ground in Baghdad. I knew what was happening in the emerging field of social media, having worked with Indymedia, which was the global grassroots movement that began in Seattle in ’99. I knew my way around campaigns, having worked with labor groups. They trusted my experience politically. I think Jeff saw that I could be someone who might be useful to them.
For me, I wanted to support this very brave and courageous crew. They had no tax identity. They just raised money to go to Iraq on their own, by hook or by crook. I was determined to see if I could help them out and try to stop the war in whatever way we could.
Schmelzer: Very few Americans have been to Iraq, and certainly right before the war started was a pretty sensitive time. What were a few of your impressions of being there?
Chan: One thing that really struck me was how Iraqis lived in a way that was not as burdensome as it was for the New Yorkers that I had been with just before going to Iraq. In late 2002, I think there was a great burden on Americans who knew that the Iraq invasion was wrong but felt like they couldn’t do anything about it. What was interesting to me when I went to Baghdad was that Iraqis didn’t have that burden. They were living in a way that felt strangely lighter. They had survived the first Gulf War invasion, they had lived through the sanctions and had learned to live with the burdens of war and sanctions for so long that they felt lighter in an interesting way.
People were still getting married. People were trying to enjoy themselves on the Tigris River. People were still hanging out in hookah bars. There was a liveliness in Baghdad that I didn’t expect. I think that was something that really surprised me.
I find that over and over in other zones of conflict that I’ve been in—whether it’s in Detroit in the middle of a huge labor riot or in New Orleans after Katrina—it always seems burdensome and dire from the outside, but once you get into the place, it’s not only much more complicated but strangely lighter, in a way, than we expect.
Schmelzer: I’m curious about your language: “How I practice what we call politics.” That word “practice” sounds like you keep doing it until you get it right. How did it change your thinking about politics?
Chan: Before the trip, I was schooled in the kind of political practice that put great emphasis on media production. The idea was to get the word out, as beautifully as possible and as widely as possible, imagining that the word would, in and of itself, be a part of the fabric of what we want changed. Indymedia was very good at producing media, whether it was video, newspapers, or even flyers that talked about what was happening post-Seattle.
I went to art school, so I’m very aware of the aesthetics of what it means to make something that people would pay attention to. But after the Iraq trip, my thinking on what made my sense of media production, and maybe cultural production in general, was attenuated.
Basically, what I learned from the Iraq trip was how limiting media can be and how important engagement is on an interpersonal, bodily level. People talk about organizing at the grassroots, but that essentially means that they’re going door-to-door and trying to sell an idea, without actually listening to what those people want to say or think about once they’ve been told. You communicate more by being with someone one-on-one than by making a report about the situation in person and online. Voices in the Wilderness worked on that kind of granular grassroots level.
I think there was another level of “grassrootness” that I learned from working with Voices in the Wilderness and from Jeff that made me much more aware and much more sensitive to just how complicated communication really is. What it means to say something and what it means to listen. What it really means to understand the situation of a place and the way in which we understand the situation.
Schmelzer: Let’s talk about the book. When I first learned about On Democracy by Saddam Hussein, I confess I was a little taken aback. I thought: why publish a book of Saddam Hussein’s democracy speeches? Why risk aggrandizing this tyrant? Now that I’ve read it, I understand better, but I’m still curious about what drew you to the project and what you think Saddam teaches us about democracy.
Chan: Well, I did it because it was profoundly confusing and interesting. I think of what Bertolt Brecht said: “We shouldn’t start with the good old things, we should start with the bad new things.” It seems to me that there’s nothing more bad and strangely new than rediscovering how Saddam Hussein thought about democracy. I think it’s perverse and completely interesting.
That was the main motivation. I thought about doing this project for a long time, ever since Jeff gave me the speeches back in 2003. Sometimes you don’t find the right form for the thing you want to do, but you don’t want to force it, you just want to sit on it. That’s what happened here. In 2010, I started a press, ostensibly to publish eBooks and paper books by artists. It was through setting up an independent press that I realized that maybe these speeches can take the form of a book, a kind of reader on and by Saddam Hussein, about democracy.
The thing that struck me most when I read the speeches in 2003 is how fluid the idea of democracy was for Hussein. After reading the three speeches, you still can’t tell what he means by democracy, and it’s confusing. But I think it’s intentionally so, because for Hussein, democracy is an aesthetic device. He’s using the term to beautify other ideas that he wants people to pay attention to and put faith in, like legitimate power or the revolution—the Iraq revolution in 1958 that overthrew the monarchy and installed the Baath party itself.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Hussein’s speeches on democracy in the late ’70s were, in a way, a harbinger of how people are using democracy elsewhere in the world.
Schmelzer: Reading the speeches, I was struck, as Bidoun editor Negar Azimi, one of your essayists in the book, was, about the repeated use of artistic imagery. For example, Hussein talks about how you have to reach parents by shaping their children, noting that “in education the artist’s brush should be used to ensure the precise imagery you want to achieve and presented a new model for building up society.” Or: “A child is like a piece of raw marble in the hands of a sculptor.” As an artist, what’s your response to that?
Chan: I think Saddam is evoking one of the oldest traditions of what we imagine art and aesthetics to be. That art is a form which expresses what we imagine as the beautiful. Historically, in the West anyway, the idea persists that the beautiful is inextricably connected to what we consider the good. So aesthetics is connected to ethics insofar as we imagined the beautiful being a physical manifestation of what we imagine as the good, whether that’s the “good life” or the “good person.” I think Hussein was mobilizing that idea—essentially saying that democracy is like a brush that we use to paint a picture of what we want the good life to be in Iraq.
Hussein talks about how, through the right and proper democratic processes, the Iraqis will get all the things we imagine a good modern society ought to have: education, a stable political society, security—all the benefits that we believe we will get if we practice democracy. It just so happens that by implication, democracy essentially means listening to Hussein and the Baath Party.
In many ways, it’s the starkest form of representational democracy, because he represents democracy. In this sense, it’s very contemporary. Putin is essentially doing the same thing in Russia. They vote in Russia. They say they have a democracy. But does anyone really believe it? I think the same argument can be made in many countries around the world where an image of democracy is being offered as the way in which the land is governed, but many instances in which we realize it is not democratic at all.
That’s another reason why I wanted to publish this: because it brings another dimension to all the conversations that you have heard, that I have heard, that others want to talk about in relations to what art is and what politics can be.
Schmelzer: Does it speak to the potential power of art if tyrants and dictators see it as a tool in achieving their ends?
Chan: Here’s a convoluted way I can talk about it: human beings create bioelectricity. Our pulses inside our bodies have a small charge to them. In fact, all living organisms generate some bioelectricity. The starkest example is the fish that glow in the dark in the water, or electric eels. Human beings don’t have that much electricity, but we generate some. But apparently, there are some people in the world who generate so much electricity that they interfere with the working order of electronic devices like mobile phones or laptops.
A couple of years ago, a British scientific journal did a study on these people and found that the phenomenon was real—that some people when they are agitated generate enough electricity that there is a magnetic field around them. This magnetic field interferes with the working order or your laptop or your iPad.
So it gave credence to the idea that sometimes when we’re agitated or nervous, and machines break down or your mobile phone doesn’t work, it may not be the device. It actually maybe you. I find this to be an incredibly potent metaphor for what I imagine art is. That in many ways, art is that person, the field that makes things not work, that disrupts the order of things.
So in a way, I am more attracted to and more sensitive to the image of art as something that is so powerless that it makes other things and people lose power too. So I guess that’s the long answer.
Schmelzer: Well put. Moving on: I learned a lot reading this book, especially from the supplemental essays. It was interesting reading that this dictator had a history of speeches that championed the downtrodden and touted democratic ideals. But beyond that, I also learned that Saddam was honored by UNESCO for fighting illiteracy and given the key to Detroit in ’79. Then there are also contradictions: how he discouraged Iraqis from having contact with foreigners, yet commissioned James Bond filmmaker Terence Young to make a six-hour telenovela on his life. So the nuance makes me wonder, is the book a reaction to the polarized thinking or un-nuanced media presentations that pervade political discourse today?
Chan: [Laughs] I would like to think we have such high ambitions. But honestly, it was because it was perversely pleasurable to imagine publishing a book as perverse as this. I think it’s full of contradiction. I think, as a money-losing publisher, that is what I am most attracted to, the things that will generate more questions than answers. Knowing that in 2012, we feel as if we have answered the question of Iraq. The United States invaded in 2003, we slogged through nine years of war, and we’ve pulled out of Iraq. They are officially “a country that rules itself,” and we feel like it’s a chapter that’s finished, that we can put it behind us. And that may be true. But there are still so many questions about what happened and what we can learn from it. Publishing these speeches gives me a small opportunity to remember what happened and remember how complicated it really was.
Schmelzer: It speaks to the question of “truth.” One of the book’s essays mentions how the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square might have been a manipulation for or by the media. Multiple news stories say that had Fox News’ cameras panned back, they’d have shown that there was a relatively small number of people involved and that US military personnel were key to the statue’s demise. The question of what truth looks like when we pan back applies to Saddam as well. Was he merely this horrible tyrant? Of course he was, but it’s also a much more multifaceted story. That’s one of the messages I took from the book.
Chan: Yeah. There was a relationship between Saddam Hussein and the United States at a certain time, and how complicated that relationship was, and the complicated history of Iraq itself as a country and the Baath Party. Not to make it too philosophical, but I think to me this is the right time for this book for two reasons. One, the most exemplary manifestation of democracy is an election. We’re going through an election here in the US in the fall, and so questions about democracy abound.
On the other hand, but just as important, is that it seems so untimely that we want to forget about Iraq. It’s in a way the perfect time to do it, because we feel like we have forgotten it. It reminds me of what Nietzsche once said about how one must be untimely. I’m not a Nietzschean, but I think he’s right that maybe the thing we ought to do is to do things that are untimely so that they can be timely again.
Schmelzer: What do you mean by untimely, and what did Nietzsche mean by it?
Chan: I think he meant that to be too close to your own time is to be seduced with progress in which we find ourselves. For Nietzsche, for instance, at the time that he was living, which was late 19th century Europe, he went back to the Greeks to be untimely. He thought only through the prism of the past, or only of things people have forgotten, can we illuminate the present in an interesting and compelling way. We can’t be too close to our own time. We must look at our own time from other times so that we have another perspective. I think Nietzsche was nuts, but he was also insightful. That insight, I think, is true, especially with this book. We have other things to worry about. We have Donald Trump to worry about. We have a financial crisis to worry about. We don’t want to worry about Iraq. But I think in a way, this is the perfect time for it.
Schmelzer: You’re releasing this book this fall at the New York Art Book Fair, just a few weeks before the election. I don’t know if you were intending it, but I feel like there’s a lesson that I found in this book about constructed realities, and then I look at what’s going on in the presidential race, and this constructed reality that we’re hearing from both sides.
Chan: I think there’s a lesson in how we use political ideas aesthetically. Hussein used the words “democracy” and “democratic” aesthetically—to beautify certain notions that he wants you to pay attention to or believe. We see this process over and over where people will say what we imagine the good life to be as a way to beautify other notions that they want you to believe. Mitt Romney, for instance, will say he will lower your taxes if you vote for him, but he doesn’t tell you how he will put our country into more debt through it and also shift the economic burden to everyone else who’s not making 10 million dollars. Here’s a naked and very blatant way in which ideas are being used aesthetically.
Schmelzer: Your art is interspersed between the speeches and essays in On Democracy. How do you see them interacting with the text? Do you see them as illustrations for the text, or are they part of a conceptual whole with the book?
Chan: Did you say conceptual pull or conceptual pole?
Schmelzer: Whole, W-H-O-L-E [Laughs]. But you can read it either way.
Chan: I first thought you said conceptual pull, P-U-L-L, and I think that sounds right to me. The drawings and collages are essentially two sets. I made the first set in 2006. Then I made a second set this year. Even though five or six years separate them, they were made with the same motivation in mind. I wanted to make visual images that travel with the speeches without complementing them. So it gives a kind of conceptual push and pull. There are some representational works, there are some abstract works, but they all work to push and pull at the speeches—to show how fluid the idea of democracy is in terms of how Hussein talks about it, and maybe in general. How abstract the terms of democracy can be as you start to untangle them with other ideas. With Hussein, it’s about the Baath Party and socialism—the right processes in which Iraq can come out of its history and begin to exist as a modern secular Arab state.
I just let my mind wander to make things I thought would give those speeches a kind of strange and maybe even perverse push and pull that they deserve.