Infiltrating The Garden: An Interview With Ed Steck
[Paul Cunningham and Ed Steck got together over email to discuss the creation of Steck’s haunting and haunted book defying form, The Garden (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013)]
Paul Cunningham: You’re from Pittsburgh, right? I’m pretty sure that you are—not just because I read the bio that follows the acronym appendix and transcription summary at the end of The Garden—but because I purchased something from Encyclopedia Destructica years ago called Coatlicue 2. I’m from Pittsburgh too, which is a lie. I’m actually from a town in Western Pennsylvania that’s not too far from the city, but because I’m embarrassed to tell people I’m from Western Pennsylvania, it’s usually just easier to tell people I’m from Pittsburgh.
Ed Steck: Ah, yeah, Coatlicue 2 from Encyclopedia Destructica! I haven’t thought about that in awhile. I’m not from Pittsburgh. I’m from Southwestern Pennsylvania. I grew up in a small town called Irwin. It’s near other similar smaller towns like Latrobe, McKeesport, Jeanette, Greensburg, Monroeville, Forest Hills, and Glassport. I’m not embarrassed by it. I like the isolation and removal. I lived in Pittsburgh for about eleven years. At this point, I think I’d trade living in the city for living in a small town in Southwestern Pennsylvania. I’d rather be in the middle of nowhere than the middle of somewhere.
PC: You once mentioned that you live in a basement. Nearly all of my writing is written in a basement, so let’s just say I also live in a basement. A fallout shelter. Western PA often feels like a place that’s been quarantined off from the rest of the world. Sunsets are interrupted by whatever is billowing out of the nuclear plant smokestacks down the river. White people justify their confederate flagged trucks with pleas of “southern pride” despite being a two-hour drive away from Lake Erie. The Ohio River is lined with towns filled with more empty buildings than busy ones. I guess this is why I quickly related to your “The Catfish Kydll of Aokigahara” story in Coatlicue 2 (“pedaled our bikes to church after dark just to write messages in the dust; worried ourselves sick over bug bites and watched the steam settle on our tea; stayed in bed all day and walked out through old houses all night. ‘All night. Hazy night.’ The glass on our lip. The swirl of warmth entering your lungs and the light”). I wake up every day in these ghosted old steel mill towns feeling like a ghost myself. I write all of this because I think it’s a great starting point for a conversation about The Garden. Why are you writing, Ed? Why did you write The Garden?
ES: I don’t ever remember living in a basement. About eight years ago, I lived in a weird room that felt like a basement: sliding doors, windows painted black, caved-in ceiling. I understand the sub-feeling of basement that emanates from Western Pennsylvania though. You painted a good picture of it. I took a trip up to NYC by train at the beginning of June, and I usually love watching the industrial landscape move outside. But, I felt different this time, kind of nauseous. Everything looked so dilapidated and dangerous in a way that wasn’t historically hopeful or monumental but rather as totems of continuing failure. On the train ride, somewhere around Clairton maybe, definitely after Braddock and Glassport (I don’t know where I was exactly), the thick of collapsing industrialization was pretty impenetrable, lots of smoke and collapsed buildings. I remember seeing two people sleeping on this concrete slab hanging over the river. I used to romanticize the landscape, the area, the buildings. I focused on the spaces of abandonment, where things could be occupied and experienced, as places that once existed. Vague, but so is romanticism. After multiple occupations of abandonment, it seemed to prove that these spaces were ripe for re-abandonment, and all of the new spaces constructed in these areas primarily sit empty. It’s the abandonment cycle. There’s the human factor, too. I try to avoid that. Anyways, I can’t look at the farm over the trees from my mom’s house without acknowledging the possibility of fracking. The water over there already had to be shut off due to contamination. A poisonous atmosphere can hang over the area. Lots of drugs, too. That’s probably normal though in every town in the entire country, or world. Small spaces fit into larger spaces. Anyways, the story in Coatlicue 2 comes out of my romanticism decline of the area and the feeling of not actually being there. A lot of the stuff I was writing at the time was about saying farewell to those experiences by re-collecting (and recollecting) fragmented events from my notebooks, and organizing them into short, suggested narratives. I haven’t thought about this writing in years. At first, I was uncertain about how this relates to The Garden, or any of the stuff I’m currently writing, but now I can see that it is all based on this foundation of ghosting.
Presently, I’m writing primarily to include. The inclusion ranges from including myself into a larger presence to including others into complications that surround whatever this larger presence is. I also think that inclusion has a lot to do with exclusion – to position oneself into an indebted sector is to compromise one’s own presence, which begins to exhibit attributes of disappearing. To appear is to disappear. I guess this relates to ghosting. I don’t know if that makes sense. I write to appear. I write to disappear. To put it bluntly. Besides that, initially, writing was a therapeutic practice. It brought me out of a pretty dark space about nine years ago. It still is a therapeutic practice but it transformed after I started working on The Garden. It became about inclusion and operation, research, and testing the results of procedure. A lot of this came from my time at Bard College’s MFA program, and learning about conceptual art and conceptual writing, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, and astonishingly learning a new way to read and see. I’m enthusiastically indebted to that program for the state I am in today. I’d probably be dead otherwise.
Anyways, a lot of why and what I write is working within the realms of these questions of disappearance/presence and inclusion/exclusion, residing mainly at the borders of these questions. Calmly and quietly retching at the tipping point, that’s where I like to be. That’s my interpretation of why I write at this very moment. I think my answer would be completely different if you asked me two hours from now. There’s the whole procedural and conceptual and whatnot idea of disappearance I proposed here, but there is also the other kind of disappearance that I experience in writing, which is completely disappearing into the content and world that is being built within the project. I want to take that world apart and bend the circuits. I want to manipulate the outcome of fucking something up. Sometimes that world is a direct reflection of our own. Other times, it is so alien and catastrophically uncanny that upon returning, your brain has to reassemble itself because the whatever-you-saw/whatever-you-experienced liquidated your command center. It’s about transformation, baby. If I had to answer this question in four words, I’d simply say: Writing is mad fun. That’s that.
I wrote The Garden after I stopped writing. I was completing my MFA and I had a large fiction piece that I was imagining as my thesis project. It was a collection of loosely-narrative/non-narrative aphorisms that formed a larger, critical platform on the state of alienation in a controlled state. At one point, I was reading the thing and I realized there was nothing at stake in the piece, so I abandoned it (I’d like to return to it). At the same time, I was writing a more meditative long poem on landscape and landscape architecture. I had a pile of projects, really. I started writing The Garden after I amassed a large collection of material on government surveillance, surveillance in warfare, drones, the manipulation of landscape in war, and the architecture of warfare. I began to recognize similarities between the virtual aspects of drone warfare and landscape with the construction of gardens and landscape architecture. I found more being said in the margins of the material than in the content of the document, and a lot more being said in the absences than in what I was writing before I got to The Garden. I became enamored with the idea of translating the marginalia of code, of Xerox generation loss, and the procedural aspects of these documents. I wrote The Garden to make visible what was at stake within the invisible, and to implicate, and to distinctly depict this implication as inescapable. I wrote The Garden as a response to the new reading process I had to cultivate to read these documents (I’ve said elsewhere that reading these documents was like the first time I read poetry). The Garden is the product of the simulation of attempting to world-build around a reading experience of the unknown or the disappeared. And in that synthetic generated world are textures, doubled from the initial world presented to the reader, and complications of those doubled textures form, endlessly creating alternate layers for exploration (there’s something left over after it’s over). I guess that’s why I wrote it. I got really carried away in it.
PC: I really love UDP’s design for the book. I also think it’s definitely a book that could never translate well to ebook format. My interest piqued just looking at it. From the censored text one can just barely make out on the cover to the way squares of text hover alongside renderings of wood patterns. And the way the red of that strawberry on the back cover lingers radiantly as though we’ve been moving to and fro in a long game of Pac-Man. I desire that fruit and yet I don’t even know why! Were you involved in UDP’s design for the book? Was it a collaborative process?
ES: Thanks. I was just thinking about a Ms. Pac-Man arcade game that I used to play at this carwash in Irwin. It seems like they are in a haunted tunnel system. I want them to be in a haunted house though. I might dig deeper into the Pac-Man mythologies later. Anyways, I understand the desire for the strawberry. The strawberry has a lot of functions in The Garden. I wanted to add it to the cover of the book because it was seductive next to those grey washes, which mimics its function in the book – an escape. But, it was also a kind of humorous nod to the inclusion of illuminated manuscripts that used strawberries in the margins (which made me think of the translation of marginalia). I chose to include it in the text as an attempt for an organic compound to be introduced into the technical world of The Garden. To me, the strawberry is also very deceptive. I bet that strawberry tastes delicious in there, but I wouldn’t trust that taste. I was imagining the monster strawberries found in the supermarket when I wrote it, the unauthentic strawberry. One of my goals in life is to eat the freshest wild strawberry that I can find.
I had an idea of how I wanted the book to be designed and laid out, but it was largely a collaborative process with Anna Moschovakis, who edited it. She’s great and one of my favorite people. Everyone at UDP is great. I love them. I put together an artist book of The Garden, coupled with two books I assembled of reference images I used while writing it. I was initially going to make more of these artist books upon the release of the book but it got too complicated and insane.
PC: “Exploration is a language of progression.” I open this book. I start at the beginning. By page 11, I am referred to the Appendix at the back of the book. I have to read the fine print if I want to advance, right? (Advancement is key, said someone important once and probably on TV.) The beginning of this book—this Garden—seems to also be the end. At this point I feel like I’m following instructions. I feel like a far less subversive reader than when I began (like when I was trying to decipher the censored text). I’m definitely following instructions now. Why? Because I desire something? Why do I want to go exploring? I want to advance because advancement leads to answers, right? Why am I persisting, Ed?
ES: You are persisting because being mechanical is natural. Naturalism is a mechanism. As I mentioned earlier, The Garden, at times, is a translation of perception, and in this instance, it is a translation of form. The Garden, the book, is a map, a directory. I wanted it to be read as a manual. Or, to appear to be able to be read as a manual, rather. And, to advance through a manual, the reader has to follow the rules of the system created by that document. It marches you through the confinement of that reading experience. It’s weird, because I realized that later on in the process of writing it – the inclusion of the appendix was something to contain the narrative of the text, to contain the landscape within it. It’s evil to be lead through your own mind, to have direction decided for you. And, I think this is where desire fits in, to break out of that mode of instruction. There’s a desire within the characters in the book to escape, or to be made visible through movement and speed. Constantly circling the space that traps them. It is never explicitly said by them, but they don’t have a voice. The reader has a voice, and has the potential to desire to not be instructed, to escape instruction. I want the reader to feel trapped in The Garden. I want it to feel insufferable and inescapable in there. There is no room for subversion in The Garden.
PC: Speaking of “insufferable” and “inescapable,” what about identity? ”Identity is an incriminating instrument.” Why are we focusing on these two men in the Garden? Why not two women? Or a man and a woman? Should we be scrutinizing gender? Or do we already do that? Maybe these two bodies are anti-bodies? Is the garden still “lovely” once it contains these two men? Was it ever lovely in the first place? And what are they doing in the Garden? And where did they come from? Do they have the proper paperwork to be roaming the Garden? Are these two men un-American?
ES: “Everything in the garden is lovely” is a line that repeats in the book. It’s an idiom, that means everything is perfect. In The Garden, it is used as a covering of the errors, violence, and any injustice that occurs in the book. It’s a slogan for obedience. It is the law. The old “Don’t question authority” measure. You know: “Everything is lovely. Move along, move along.” That kind of thing. I wanted this form of order to be embedded in the architectural motifs, ornate decorations, and landscape features. Gardens are about order. There is the option for diversity and growth in gardens but it is always controlled. I think the two men are instances of things outside of control in The Garden, the element that is introduced that has the ability to modify the operations within the garden’s system. They don’t have a specific origin. I don’t think they are allowed to anymore. To me, when I read it, the two men have always been in the system that controls the garden. I don’t want to answer that question definitively though because I think it compromises the reader’s experience with the text (also, because I just don’t know). However, I do know where they are: endlessly circling the garden on their motorcycle, entering and re-entering the garden, their deaths repeating over and over again, and folding in on themselves, creating mirrors of their identities to be continuously compromised by the system that generates their existence. In regards to the gender question, the characters are two men because the documented events I based the characters on included two men. I initially didn’t have gender attributed to the characters, and referred to them simply as subjects, but the text was completely inhuman. I also like to think of the two men as being copies.
PC: I’m interested in the idea of copies. And holograms. I feel like holograms are surrounding me in this garden. Again, like ghosts. Feels really suffocating. Maybe there is something very hologram-like about American identity. We should monitor whoever deviates from dominant norms, right? Holograms (identity) monitoring holograms (identities). Am I onto something here?
ES: The garden is full of holograms, and may even be a hologram itself. But, a hologram is a simulation of something that is pre-existing, or something that has been programmed to augment a simulation’s previous incarnation. It’s a constructed image. I think you are onto something here with a system of replications monitoring the actions of other simulations, which is something I found compelling in the Synthetic Environment for Analysis and Simulation. It’s exciting that simulations can construct code to monitor and predict the actions of other simulations within a specific system. (It’s about conforming to a law or an order. I conformed to law and order when I wrote The Garden.) Or, in the case of The Garden, to monitor actions within a simulated environment. Everything is a copy in The Garden. It’s very natural to copy, but it’s also very mechanical and programmed to copy. I’m interested here in where the human and the mechanical collide, or mesh, in their basic behavior. Is there mimesis in programming? Yes. It’s the nature of systems to replicate. Think of the Daleks in Dr. Who (especially the Dalek trapped in the museum in Episode 6 of the relaunched Dr. Who Series in 2005): they are systematic extermination machines that are powered by the mutation of an organic being, yet, their mechanical body has the ability to evolve (“Innovate!”) while the organic body is dependent on the mechanical body’s continued evolution. Alright, I’m getting off topic a bit, but like a copy is a copy of a copy, a hologram is a hologram of a hologram, and so forth, endlessly.
PC: A hologram is a hologram of a hologram. I think I’ve got it. What about Eden? Is there any connection to Eden?
ES: No. Not immediately. I can’t ignore the similarities though. The gardens I reference are formal gardens, like Versailles, but realized the garden’s reference was unavoidable. There’s the strawberry-apple connection too. I think, however, that the intersection of Eden and the gardens in The Garden is interesting. It’s a gradual connection. It’s there if it’s there. How could it not be though? I don’t think you could read “the garden” without some synapse in the brain triggering Eden somewhere deep in the recesses. How’s that for a system introducing a hologram into the arena?
PC: For me, the desert of seemingly expired signs was an unforgettable moment in this book. The overturning of this book’s motorcycle tears everything apart. The symbols—the numbers, dollar signs, logos, copyright symbols, accent marks—all of it reminds me of a desert in which the signs no longer mean anything because there is no language for the signs to modify. Modifiers without anything to modify. Page 67 reads “Death is obsolete in symbolic numerology,” and I wondered then if the photos/symbols linked with the motorcycle crash were meant to function as holograms in the same way the strawberry functions as a hologram. A hologram is a “final surveillance” according to page 84. Perhaps, then, surveillance–the drones and the unseen cameraphones that capture us–is ultimately a form of Death in Life?
ES: To me, the collection of symbols are the aspects of the depicted event that were untranslatable by the system that was reading it. There is no language the system can translate the event into besides raw data. I think it is interesting to think of these symbols as holograms, as movements and moments unable to be processed causing a doubling and ghosting of the event. Reading the doubling and ghosting becomes another hologram: a perception or interpretation of the event told through disconnected symbols lacking the substance, or definition, that enables it to be understood. This all calls into question what is able to be defined by a hologram (as a hologram), and how a hologram functions upon its doubling, or upon its self-awareness that it actually is a hologram. This is also the action of the system recognizing the procedures within it, then replicating the actions in the language it understand, albeit in error, and producing a malfunctioning hologram. It’s a hologram recognizing its own simulation.
Surveillance is a form of prolonged stasis for the perceived subjects and the watcher or the system watching. It’s a purgatorial state, which is something I wanted to depict in The Garden through the constant circling by the two men on the motorcycle. But, there is a state of removal in surveillance that removes implication, which is apparent in the drone operator’s disconnect with the drone operations. Omer Fast’s work 5000 Feet Is Best is a great example of this. Its vampiric in the sense that you are looking into a mirror and your actions and implication aren’t reflected back to you. An interface creates an implied distance. There is a doubling of the event in surveillance (or, a simulation, hologram, or ghost, when it is removed from its source) that has an origin, a very real origin, whether it be the initial moment surveillance begins or a significant moment during surveillance, like the act of disappearing two individuals. Surveillance, like its removed implication and distance, also creates an absent chronology. Time in surveillance is blank. Time is removed in the act of surveillance. Surveillance is a copy. Its copying and recording the real world, creating a recorded simulation.
PC: What are you currently working on?
ES: I have about three manuscripts that I’m floating around in right now. Wait, actually four. I am working on Far Rainbow, which is a long science fiction epic poem. It’s titled after the Strugatski Brothers book of the same name. The poem is about the transient nature of identity and how this transience manifests in different mediums and material, as told through a layered chronology of server-planes that removes three identities from a single source and triangulates them, creating a feedback loop-like landscape. The piece is also largely about the cross-section of translation between shifting identities housed in one vessel. I’m trying asemic writing for some of the translations of a character that speaks purely in syllables associated with erotism and erotic pleasure.
I’m also working on An Interface for a Fractal Landscape which is a piece of science fiction about a nomadic, android-like program that wanders a fractal terrain that has been abandoned by any organic users. It is trying to reassemble the organic users’ interface with the generated landscape through leftover data caches. The piece is largely about world-building, mimicry in landscape and landscape meditation, and this nomadic android program’s attempt at understanding physical embodiment as well as the emotional capacity of a physical being. A lot of the landscape in the piece is influence by virtual landscapes in massive multiplayer role playing games that I used to play. I have been generating fractal landscapes on a terrain generator for the piece, creating a huge map for all of the actions to take place. I was at Pioneer Works in Red Hook in Brooklyn, and I 3D printed one of these landscape that I created for the book.
The Necro-luminosity of Pink Mist is a book-length prose-poem in three sections that is a look at the moment of death, particularly the bombing of Hiroshima. And, the most difficult thing that I am working on (which I continuously forget, probably on purpose), is a self-portrait titled Confetti/Remasquerade (Happy Halloween) that is largely about my obsession with monsters and horror movies, and trying to piece together my circuitry when I seclude myself into terror while coping.
Ed Steck is a writer. The Center for Ongoing Research and Projects published sleep as information/the fountain is a water feature in 2014. Ugly Duckling Presse published The Garden: Synthetic Environment for Analysis and Simulation in 2013. He frequently collaborates with David Horvitz. He graduated from Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts.