An Interview with Johanna Hedva - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Johanna Hedva

by Patrick Staff
September 22nd, 2020

Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain, co-published by Sming Sming and Wolfman Books, collects a decade of work from artist, musician, and writer Johanna Hedva. It assembles poems, performances, and essays covering a decade of work that precedes the widely circulated writings Hedva is predominantly known for, such as Sick Woman Theory, or the novel On Hell. In the months before Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain was released, Johanna Hedva and artist Patrick Staff spoke on catharsis and nostalgia; reading and writing; and the mysticism, madness, motherhood, and magic contained within this new book.

PATRICK STAFF: In the first essay in Minerva… (“Euripides Is Not A Genius. I Am.”) you say “never underestimate the power of catharsis.” At times in this collection, it seems like the catharsis you’re seeking is a holding to trial, an overturning or a gutting of the nature of art-making, of writing, and of biography itself. Does this observation resonate? Is it cathartic to have completed and published this collection? Are you free from these works now?

JOHANNA HEDVA: To talk about catharsis, we’re gonna have to bring up that old bitch Aristotle. He’s been a monkey on my back for over a decade now—in 2014 I wrote my MA thesis on the “political value of catharsis”—because he’s the OG theorist on what catharsis is and how it ought to be valued by society. Famously he said it happens when we watch tragedy and the actors make us feel pity and fear, and the context for this of course was the theater rituals of Ancient Athens, through which the citizenry was socialized, which is to say, these rituals are how they became political subjects. 

Me and catharsis are in a complicated relationship. It’s the ex I never got over. I recently read an interview with Tori Amos, where she says she hates when people call her work cathartic, because it seems to diminish the level of craft. I understand where she’s coming from with that—any time someone who’s not a cishet white man speaks, their voice is deemed personal, or specific, or confessional, rather than universal, philosophical; it’s emotional rather than thoughtful—but from an Aristotleian standpoint, I disagree that catharsis negates the scale of the social or political. What’s so sorcerous about catharsis is that, yes, it is a profound emotional experience that an individual can feel, but it also yokes that individual to the community (I’ve written elsewhere on this as a kind of communal alchemy, and how it really cooks in mosh pits). I think of how valuable catharsis is to so many communities dealing with violence and injustice. I think of the fact that of course we are doomed, but that doom should be thought of as a beginning rather than an end. I think that the scream is perhaps the most political sound one can make. I’ll quote the deity Diamanda Galás here: “There are 400 ways to scream.” 

All of this is to say that with Minerva, it’s true, I had a lot to cathart, but I don’t think I’m free now. I wish I fucking was, but I guess I don’t think catharsis exists in linear causal time. It’s much more centripetal. It’s kaironic rather than chronic.

Myrrhia Reed as Unraveler in Motherload, 2012. This character’s direction was “you’re trying to read with your body.”

PS: I’m so happy that you brought up Diamanda Galás. Alongside philosophers, goddesses, and djinns, there are a host of other writers and thinkers quietly threaded throughout Minerva…: Yoko Tawada, Anne Carson, Marina Tsvetaeva, Jack Spicer, Robert Lowell, among others. There are, of course, lovers, friends, family of all kinds in the book. I think of you as a consummate reader, and I know you have a beautiful little library in your writing room at home. Are these easy relationships? Are writing and reading tantamount in your practice? How is your 11th house?

JH: My primary life goal—since I was a child I’ve wanted this—has been to have my own library. It’s my greatest desire. There’s no greater pleasure to me than books, reading them, having them close, I get very romantic about this. When we moved to Berlin, we brought no furniture and 3,000 books. There have been times in my life when I was down to my last $15 and instead of buying food I bought a book. I think of my library as this wonderful extension of my brain, like a kind of prosthesis that plugs directly into paradise. I write in my books, not just notes or underlines, but where and when I bought the book, when I read and reread it, what the weather was like. I have the Part of Fortune in Libra in my 11th house (which is why I’m such a one-on-one bitch), and I chalk up my greedy reading habits to my North Node in Gemini. I want to read everything, I want to read anything. The fact that I’ve not read all the books in my library yet is also one of my greatest pleasures: that they are waiting for me. A few years ago I came up with a little joke for how to answer people when they ask me if I’ve read all my books. I say, “The short answer is yes. The long answer is no.”

Yes, reading and writing for me are the whole enchilada. It’s not just that they are easy relationships—they might be the easiest relationships I have. I’m a bit promiscuous in terms of genre and form, but I think of everything that I do as a form of writing because I work with the definition that writing is language embodied. Like, dragging a hand through water is writing, screaming in a room is writing. But I’m also elated when I think about how writing and reading are geminated. When I was making many of the performances that are now in Minerva, a close friend said that my work was “trying to bus reading into a new neighborhood.” I was ignited by that, it was totally right. 

When I write, I keep stacks of books around me on my desk. They’re guides. If I get stuck, one of my favorite things to do is open a book at random and type an entire sentence from it verbatim into my manuscript. Then I go through each word, one by one, and change it to a synonym or an antonym. This is to get at new syntaxes. But it’s also an infestation of writing with reading and vice versa. Reading is dragging a hand through water, reading is screaming in a room.

PS: The first time I saw you perform I didn’t realize it was you until many years later. It was August 2012, at the art space Machine Project in Los Angeles, and a performance called Let’s Start With The Obvious featuring yourself and Marcus Kuiland-Nazario. It was one of my early trips to LA, and I had been brought there by the artists Candice Lin and Asher Hartman. I remember we all went to Taix afterwards, an infamous French restaurant down the street from Machine, and I imagine I was too shy to speak to anyone. These names and places—Candice and Asher; Machine Project; Taix—made a nascent but strong impression on me at that time as to what LA was really about, what community there was, and the energy around art-making in the city. Those years and those places feature heavily in Minerva…, woven into the plays and performances you were making then. Can you talk about that work a bit? Does it connect to the live performances you do now, which perhaps connect more closely to “music” as opposed to “theatre”? Is Machine Project still a part of you? When were you last in the neighborhood?

JH: This question makes me clutch my sternum and groan with nostalgic longing, I just wanna cry. Taix! Machine Project! Candice and Asher and Marcus and uuughhhgh!

Ancient Monuments to What, commissioned by Machine Project and High Desert Test Sites, and performed at El Mirage Dry Lakebed, March 2015.

PS: Ha! It wasn’t my intention to burden you with all that nostalgia, though I can see why it might give you a mild heartburn. I guess I am wondering, will this collection be legible to those who were there at the time? Is it legible to you? Does it matter?

JH: Now I’m gonna get really romantic. First of all, Los Angeles is the most defining character in my life. My mother was third-generation born and raised in L.A., I am fourth. My aunt, who half-raised me, worked in Hollywood as a manager (my big claim to fame, and why I am the way I am: she was Liza Minelli’s manager in the 80s). All the Johannas and Hedvas that I’m named after are buried in the same cemetery: Forest Lawn Glendale. Some years ago I felt overcome with a need to get away, I’ve only ever lived in L.A., I felt I couldn’t also die there, so we moved to Berlin, but immediately I became one of those people that goes around crowing about how L.A. is the best city in the world, and brags about all the things that mean I’m from there (like: I don’t need GPS to get around; I can roll a cigarette while reading a Thomas Guide while driving stick; I have a favorite freeway). It’s my marrow, my compass, who and where I am is how close or far L.A. is. 

Second, I would not be the artist I am today without Machine Project and the people I met and worked with there. I remember when I was in my early 20s and had just started at UCLA, my big life-goal was to one day work with Machine Project. Ugghghgg! I’m gonna cry and clutch my sternum again! I was hella fucking spoiled not only to have found, as a young artist, such a robust, freaky, brilliant community of geniuses and visionaries, but I also had the good fortune to really work in and for and because of that community. For four years, I worked at Machine as a grant-writer while I was also working with them as an artist. This meant that if I came up with some idea for a piece, I got to write it into the grant. I had to find language to explain what the artists around me were making, to articulate our relationships to each other, and make a case for the conceptual and political themes we cared about. Machine Project constantly had to explain why what it was doing was art (it was a noncommercial space, as zany as it was serious), which gave me a stamina and vocabulary for giving language—though, not definitions—to what is incorrigible, indefinable.

All of the pieces in Minerva happened in L.A., they could not have happened anywhere else, and so to answer your question: I hope that Los Angeles is the one element of legibility in the book. Because there’s a voracious illegibility everywhere else in it—how many different forms it shape-shifts into, and how it mutates what those specific forms in and of themselves are supposed to be—I think the location, the place, of Los Angeles is the true anchor. Performances like this, a practice like mine, writing that’s also all of these other things, could only happen in L.A. I always say that no one looks like they’re from L.A., per se, they just look like they’re from their own planet, and, in this way, Minerva is a document of that weird little planet of mine orbiting the star of L.A.. 

Everything Is Erotic Therefore Everything Is Exhausting, an attempt to catalog everything erotic in the world, performed at PØST, Los Angeles, 2011.

PS: At one point, you describe Minerva… as springing from your head motherless, but crawling with ghosts. You also describe collecting these works together as simultaneously making you feel young, and proving that you are old. And finally, you say that you want to kill the time in your life that she documents, abandoning the work outwards into the world. I am really into needling you more about all this baggage. I identify with the feeling, but also the impossibility of reconciling those past selves that have appeared in various publics, or live in the minds of others. I wonder about your thoughts on the Temple of Vesta, and tending to the holy fire?

JH: I have Uranus and the South Node smack on my rising in Sagittarius. For non-astrology people, this means the anus of the universe is sitting right on the place where I’m supposed to appear in the world. And the boiling need to transgress and rebel (which everyone has, it just depends on where, against what, the transgression will be oriented) is against my very self. It means that I abandon my work into the world. It means that my persona, my public self, is already a ghost. It means “I” is multiplied, fractured, and grown through how it is expressed. It’s why I’ve had so many names. What’s on the other side of my face is a stranger. The holy fire to me is about annihilation, surrendering to it. A shaman once led me through a ceremony to find my “inner temple.” We got there: it was just a silent huge cube of black obsidian that ate everything. Like a black hole that was my own head. That’s a good note to end on. 

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