Goodbye to Berlin? La JohnJoseph’s ‘Trial Separation’ and his New Novel.
Berlin’s beloved performance artist and novelist, La JohnJoseph (also known as the ‘boy hero of pop’ Alexander Geist), has left Berlin for London. A trial separation, she calls it. It is painful to see fixtures of the Berlin alternative arts scene pull out their piece of the foundation. It sends a tremble of questioning to the upper stories. How many of us have leaned out from our balconies, up to the grey skies and down to the commercialising facades, and contemplated moving on?
Some are now searching for a city relationship with more opportunity, others for warmer weather and strangers who will smile back. Others yearn for metropolitan rush and hustle. The names Montevideo, Leipzig, Warsaw, Montréal and London are on people’s lips when they whisper, ‘Is Berlin really over?’ Some of us shrug and say Berlin’s just fine, and we’re the ones who have changed––we get older and the city stays young. Or does that mean this is the place where people start out, not the place where people stay? Perhaps we are just adapting to a new phase: the city is still sexy, but has moved on from poor to chic.
La JohnJoseph has been here on and off for 4 years, gracing the capital’s dens of sin and performance with his electric pink and her powder blue suits, locks of ginger hair, arch voice and lovely full lips. From Liverpool, life took her to London (2 years), to Berkeley (another 2 years), to New York (2 years), to London (1 year), then to Berlin where he lived mostly in Kreuzkölln.
The Needle had the pleasure of a debriefing interview with La JohnJoseph in late August, when he was here giving a reading to promote her challenging new novel, Everything Must Go, a non-linear narrative starring a pregnant intersex world destroyer in adventures that could only be inspired by a Catholic childhood (believe me, I had one). It is an uncompromising Pynchonesque assault on the literary form.
Now, it was hard to cut this interview down to size, because I was impressed by La JohnJoseph’s eloquence, humour and acuity. So I provide our conversation here in its entirety:
Joseph Pearson: Why did you come to Berlin?
La JohnJoseph: Totally on a whim really, because of my friend Tom Masters. He was in London and we had a chat in the bathroom of some terrible party and he said, I’m driving back to Berlin next week. Do you want to come? And I said, why not? And I bought a suitcase from Argos for 11.99 and put it in his car. He went back to Berlin and I went with him, and there was really no thought put into it.
What did Berlin represent to you?
Berlin represented not being London. I had visited for a week in the winter and a week in the summer, and I think I was quite instantly in love with the city. It was so different to all the other cities I’d been in: there was something very rustic about the city. I wouldn’t like to say provicincial, but it’s not like a mega city and I really enjoyed that. Penny Arcade said this is an era where everything happens in the cracks. And I really feel that this was a city that was in the cracks. It’s so very different from Paris or London or New York, those big thriving grasping cities. And this city did its own thing and had its own logic, and was a huge magnet for all kinds of lunatics.
It is interesting you are using the past tense.
I do feel things have changed in the city. Now it’s the sixth borough of New York. Everybody knows all the parties and the clubs worldwide. They come up and it’s ‘Berlin and Berghain’, and that experience is shorthand for a very specific cultural experience. And that’s great. It’s wonderful that people are drawn and fascinated by the city and the city is not falling to pieces. But on the other hand it smoothed off a lot of the edges. The process of gentrification in this city is crazy. Four years ago you could find a room for 300 EUR or an apartment for 600, and now trying to find a room for 600 is crazy. You could buy a 50 cent beer at the Spätkauf. It was really like that: this island of lost children, because there was no real reason to come here. No one said, I’m going to come to Berlin and become a success. No, you came to Berlin because it was cheap. You could live, there was a quality of life, you could make your artworks and not feel the constant pressure to catch the last train so you could be at your terrible desk job the next day. And now, this city just seems like something else. People have figured out how to hashtag it and market it. And people move to the city to be a ‘young creative professional’. It reminds me of what was happening in the East Village. But I will always have a special place in my heart for this city.
You described that you are having a ‘trial separation’ from Berlin and you are living in Central Hackney in London. In terms of Berlin, is it a separation from a long-term partner or just a lover?
I think this city represents more a long-term partner for me than a lover. Paris is the lover, the one you know things will never quite work out with. Istanbul is also a lover. Tel Aviv was an ill-advised fling. I feel like I divorced from North America, and Berlin is a long-term relationship, that I have to take some time away from.
What brought about your spate with your long-term partner, Berlin. When did things go wrong?
Last summer was a very difficult time, personally and emotionally. I went through a very hard time, and when I looked around for the support I needed, the resources and the space to deal with that, all I could find in this city, the only options I could find here were more ketamine and less sleep. I thought, hmmm, this is not healthy. This city is a little two-dimensional. So I started saying yes to castings and auditions in London, and the projects just multiplied, and so I’ve been there most of this year. I’ve been in Berlin in March and June, and now it’s August, but only three months so far this year.
Do you feel a certain comfort in returning to England? There is a certain freedom to being intercultural, opposed to returning to the place ‘you come from’.
London is not England, New York is not America and Berlin is not Germany. London is entirely its own thing, it has its own hierarchies, stratifications, and traditions and rituals. I’m not from London, my experience growing up was entirely different. My experience from having not been there for such a long time is one of being dislocated from it. So I don’t feel the monotomy of the country I’m from, because I am experiencing things afresh.
So much of what you do artistically is through your facility with the English language: as a performer, writer, and as your ‘brother’ the pop artist Alexander Geist. I wonder whether you feel muted in Berlin?
No I never did, and partly because English is an Imperial language, so, like it or not, you can’t get away from the wretched thing. I communicate with most of my friends here in English, because they are basically geniuses who speak five languages. English is the common language. When I need to speak German, I can do it, badly, but I can do it. I never started to write in German, but that was never a problem, because the majority of the written work I was doing was in English: the novel was published in the States, and the plays performed in England. I really didn’t present anything in Berlin for which English was a barrier. I wrote a lot of stuff in Berlin, but I didn’t platform it here.
Did you find Berlin a good place to work? There was an article in the New York Times a while back about an Australian band who came to Berlin and didn’t get any work done, they were having too much fun. Is that a problem for you?
That was such a stupid article. You can have fun if you want, anytime, any place. It’s not just Berlin distracting you, maybe it’s your own lack of discipline. You have to have balance in your life: work and fun, they inform one another, you can’t have one without the other really.
If a young emerging artist comes to you and says: London is pricing me out, New York is pricing me out. Where should I go? Would you still them to come to Berlin?
I don’t know if I would. It depends. The thing with emerging artists, someone who has just left art school, is the question of how am I going to make a career, how can this pay? If you want immediately to make money out of something that is vaguely artistic, then throw a party in a nightclub. If you want to base a street-style blog somewhere, then come to Berlin, because there are a lot people wearing interesting outfits. But if you want to be an artist, that’s an entirely different thing, it is really long process, and you are advised to go somewhere where you can craft your technique, and hunker down, because it’s probably going to be a decade before anyone gives a fuck. It depends what your definition of an artist is and what you want to achieve. That band from the New York Times article, who wanted to make a record but were too busy partying, in the end, if I’m correct, decided to go work in PR. And I’m glad they went to work in PR, because there are too many lousy artists and there are too many people who really want to ‘make it’. I don’t even know what it means to ‘make it’.
It’s like wearing a badge: ‘I am an artist’, as opposed to what you do. Are you moving on to new relationship with London because your career has changed in the last four years? Have you outgrown Berlin?
I have no overarching narrative for where I will be at any particular time. I go where the opportunities are and where people seem to be most interested in what I’m doing. I like to maintain a flexibility around it. The nice thing about London is that there is always the option to do cereal commercials or something like that, which I would never do, but it is comfortable to know that people want you to be in cereal commercials.
What does London look like after Berlin?
Very well groomed, established, and impatient, and anxious. Everbody is always very concerned that they have to get the train before midnight. Nobody can afford the minicabs.
How do artists live in a city like London where they cannot afford to do anything?
I really don’t know what people do. It’s not unusual at all for actors and artists who grew up in London, in their mid twenties, to live with their parents, and their siblings all live at home too, because it is not possible to make a living in the arts of the theatre in London and move out of their parents’ homes. But also in Elgand, if you are not in London you really can’t have a career as a theatre artist. There are touring companies and artists in education, but people are snobbish about that, and people really want to have a career. In the States, do you want to make your career in Oklahoma, and expect to be well respected?
Do you find that what you do is well received in London? It’s hard to pin down what you do, when I think about it. You are in cabaret, performance art, music, literature… Sometimes I feel that Germany wants clear answers about what kind of artist you are. Is there more flexibility in the UK?
No I don’t think so. That’s not what has brough me back to England. People are just as rigid there. It’s not about artists but about arts administration who are worried about insurance.
Do you ever do something that should make them worry about insurance?
I never tell them what I will do in advance. I was performing with my brother Alexander Geist at the Martin Gropius Bau for the David Bowie show, and involved in that was BBC footage of people burning the Union Jack at the Queen’s jubilee. And they said, you must edit this out. You can’t have flag burning. It was so hilarious, because they had the Ai Weiwei installation downstairs, and they were doing this thing with the bike and flowers outside––flowers for Ai Weiwei, because he’s under house arrest and there’s no freedom of speech in China. And they were telling me as someone who has been subjected to the goddamned British monarchy, that I couldn’t show protests against British politics. Such a hilarious irony, and it really talks to how political systems will always reduce art to one-up-man-ship––it’s like Soviet art against abstract expressionism… Nobody is arrested and imprisoned wrongly here, we are Germany! We love Ai Wei Wei! Don’t burn the British flag!
Do you find, compared to London, Berkeley, or New York, that the notions of sexuality here in Berlin are also a little rustic to you, a little ossified?
I find sexuality to be very fluid here, much more than London, where people are really uptight about sex and sexuality. Here you can have nudity without it being pornographic or prudish. In America, nudity is always pornographic and in England it is always prudish. And I think that really informs sexuality. I also think people have the time in this city to have a sexuality. In London, you don’t have time to have a sexuality. In London you have your ‘economically viable’ relationship whether you like it or not.
Do you think people respect your autonomy here in Berlin?
I don’t think they have much of a choice. I am an autonomous individual and people just have to deal with that. It’s a horribly selfish attitude.
Let’s talk about your book. I read in a blog post that you wrote the book on your departure from the United States, and your frustrations there. A thread here is your relationship with different places.
I was in a culture shock returning to Europe. I had found a whole new way of life in the States, and when I was coming back, to Europe, I desperately didn’t want to be there. A lot of very unpleasant things were coming to life when I went back to the small town where my family live, in the North of England. I grew up in Liverpool, but my family now live in a very small town in Lancashire. I went back there from New York, and it was such a culture shock. I was only there for about six weeks before I started my MA in London, but it was enough to go completely mad.
For example, there was a friend of my mother’s who had told my mother that her entire life her father had sexually abused her. When she had finally told her husband in her mid thirties, then her husband also started to abuse her and so did her husband’s best friend. The horror kept piling up. She went to the police who said there was nothing they could do about it. Then the husband said he would kill the daughter if she told anyone else. My mother was totally frantic about what she could do for this woman. And her husband said, ‘well it’s not your problem is it?’
It was such a horrible shock to realize, that the world, in the time I’d been away from that world, the world had not gone forward at all. There was still this horrible nexus of misogyny, and sexual violence, and institutional sexual violence, as well, and there more things on a similar theme that I don’t feel this is the appropriate place to talk about. Leaving the States, and this horrible incident… the only way to discuss these things in my life and the lives of people around me was through this novel, and it was a little bit like being possessed. It just happened in one go.
It has been called Pynchonesque. Were you consciously thinking about other literary styles or did it come quite spontaneously?
The whole things came totally spontaneously. I had written for a long time: criticism, essays, a libretto and plays, but the voice in this novel was a lot closer to my own speaking voice. I was saturated in television and movies and codeine and whiskey at the time, living with my family and bombarding myself with images and drugs.
How do whiskey and codeine mix?
It’s a little bit of a disassociative. It’s not advised.
The novel does not make for easy reading. But then it can be very amusing. It is very strange to be laughing and uncomfortable at the same time.
My favourite artists do that. David Hoyle is totally incredible. He was an amazing influence on the tone of the work. I also recently discovered Andrea Fraser and I watched some of her videos. She has this incredible thing called Museum Highlights, where she gives the audience a tour of the Museum of Art in Philadelphia and becomes increasingly deranged and aggressive, and utterly hysterical and malicious simultaneously, with this very professional veneer, which I think the book does as well, which I think maintains a certain decorum even in describing moments of horror.
You talk about Berlin in the text: what way does Berlin play a character?
Berlin does not play a character. Time and place are characters, mutable characters. But really it is a book written in images. A lot of people find it a challenge to read this book, because it does not say ‘then I took the S-bahn and went to Pankow’. It hops all over the joint in terms of time and place, but I think that’s the contemporary experience of time. I don’t understand why people are so hung up on a linear idea of time. Don’t you sit at your computer, and somebody skypes you, and you are a finding music video you listend to in 1994, and that makes you think of a friend, and you are planning a project, and you are planning what you will do next Christmas, and you are talking to people all over the world in different time zones and locations… so I don’t know why we would imagine that texts should still be this Victorian thing pre-telephone.
Yes, we have gone back towards 19th century narrative techniques. It’s what publishers seem to want––
Publishers! Let’s not think at all about what publishers have to say about books. Then authors would be writing bloody coffee-table books about Donatella Versace if they had their way.
EM Forster was all for linear plot because it gives us a sense of time in novel, then Gertrude Stein of course tried to write a book which did not have any sense of time… I don’t know what has happened to modernism. If we think the most experimental things in literature happened eighty years ago, where are we?
I would give some credit to people like Kathy Acker, writing in the eighties, I think she was a big influence on the style, also David Wojnarowicz. In terms of experimental form, I don’t think there’s been much interesting material for quite some time. There’s incredible writing, but I don’t think it’s challenging the form of writing. So many people told me when they read this book: ‘but it’s not a novel’, but then I read their novels and I would hardly call them literature.
They have obviously not read Malloy.
When thinking about this book market works, what has been your solution? Because you are putting forward a book that is very challenging.
I have never considered markets at all. I think that’s death really for an artist to consider. We should never think ‘but is it art’? We should most definitely not think, ‘but will it sell?’ I knew it was a challenge. I continue to be impressed with the people who made the book happen: Travis Jeppesen who was behind it and gave it to Bruce Benderson, the Prix de Flore-winning novelist, who was 100% behind it, then to ITNA Press who actually published it and really took the big jump, after 3 or 4 years of people saying this is incredible, this must be read, but we can’t publish it. People really raved about it. For a while I had the same agent as Salman Rushdie. No one ever said, this is garbage, but they did say, I don’t know what to do with it.
Is the book like you. They don’t know what to do with you?
I think some people have a fair idea of what do with me.
[sultry voice] Have a great time…
I’m sure that eventually, like glaciers or mountainsides or Marlene Dietrich, you do get ground down to one thing, ultimately you get reduced to one thing, to one certain imagee, to one kind of output. If you are successful, this happens. So I am happy to be mutable until I end up on Game of Thrones and end up Ice Dragon Queen or whatever. And no one will remember the rest of what I did, just that I was Ice Dragon Queen. So, for the moment, I’m happy to do 70 different things.
Returning to our first topic of discussion, I understand the reasons you are thinking about a trial separation with Berlin, but how does Berlin feel about this?
I think that Berlin may be somewhat relieved. Berlin might think that the time has come. I think I’ve taken up a lot of Berlin’s mental capacity.
Time to go?
I hope you don’t, I hope you stay, I hope that you have a terrible time in London and come back to us.