The Process: Joe Gibbons, Confessions of a Sociopath, 2005 - Believer Magazine
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The Process: Joe Gibbons, Confessions of a Sociopath, 2005

In which an artist discusses making a particular work 
by Emily Watlington
Illustration by Samar Haddad
header-image

The Process: Joe Gibbons, Confessions of a Sociopath, 2005

In which an artist discusses making a particular work 

by Emily Watlington
Illustration by Samar Haddad

The Process: Joe Gibbons, Confessions of a Sociopath, 2005

Emily Watlington
27 Snaps

“Only through sickness can we know what true health is,” writes director George Kuchar, whom filmmaker Joe Gibbons quotes in his magnum opus, Confessions of a Sociopath (2005). Gibbons explains, “That’s why I’ve gone to such lengths to develop my neurosis,” one of his many rationalizations for his debauched lifestyle in the 1990s. Confessions was conceived as a real-life version of Samuel Beckett’s one-man play Krapp’s Last Tape, and Gibbons makes fascinating use of the play’s major interests in isolation, self-mythology, artistic failure, and recording technology. In Confessions, we see Gibbons shoplifting hundreds, maybe thousands of books. Sometimes he poses as a critic to get books for free, and later he returns or resells them. It’s how he pays his rent, buys his film. He can’t keep a job, because jobs are, in his words, “boring and stressful” (and maybe also because of the heroin we see him doing on camera). Anyway, by stealing books he can make $1,700 in one day. We also see him filming through people’s windows. Confessions is a documentary. 

Gibbons, age sixty-seven, began shooting the footage for Confessions in 1986, and from 2002 to 2010, he held a coveted job as a lecturer in art at MIT. He taught some of my friends, who still rave about his video class. His films have been shown at venues including the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City; the Centre Pompidou, in Paris; and numerous Whitney Biennials. In 2015, he was sentenced to a year at Rikers Island, in New York, for robbing a Manhattan bank on New Year’s Eve 2014, an act he filmed and called performance art. (In November 2014, a month before the robbery, he also robbed a bank in Providence, Rhode Island, but received probation for that crime.) Director Maxim Pozdorovkin made a documentary about the bank robberies and their legal consequences, How to Rob Banks for Dummies, and is currently seeking a distributor. Gibbons got out four months early on good behavior, and recently moved to Roosevelt Island, where he made time to talk with me by email about Confessions while recovering from dental reconstruction—he lost a few teeth trying to break up a fight at Rikers.

—Emily Watlington

THE BELIEVER: You’ve said that Confessions is “all real, but the persona is not real.” 

JOE GIBBONS: Of course, I naturally adopt a persona when I point the camera at myself. Even though the material is factual, I must adopt a persona. It’s a self-presentation strategy, an artistic persona as well as a protective one: it’s necessary to balance the very revealing personal details with a rather glib presentation. That strategy is also one of the well-documented traits of sociopaths. 

BLVR: How long did you work on this film? Was it planned or more improvised? I get the sense you were filming just yourself all the time. Is that true? 

JG: The film is all improvisational. It was taken almost entirely from previously existing footage. Ever since I was a teenager, I have been documenting my life on film. Once I was in art school, I realized it could be a form within which I could present my work. When I was twenty-five, I discovered I could naturally mine that rich vein of human behavior that is considered aberrant, pathological. It’s the stuff of personality disorders and mental illness, but also the source of so much popular entertainment. The sociopath is the main driver of numerous entertainment products. Unfortunately, many hundreds of hours of material have been lost. Everything I recorded on video from 1986 to 2012—over twenty-five years of reckless living, amounting to over a thousand 8 mm video cassettes—was destroyed in the floods accompanying Superstorm Sandy, which hit New York in 2012. 

BLVR: That’s tragic! I didn’t know you’d been documenting yourself that long. In Confessions, you narrate what you’re doing in the third person, and in a detached way. It makes sense that you spent a lot of time observing yourself on film. You describe the patient (yourself) as “oppositional,” as someone who habitually rebels against limits of all kinds, implying that this is a kind of disorder. You liken the clinical and the Catholic in your use of the titular term confessions. At one point you ask, “Whose rules am I bending?” 

I’m curious if you’ve found that pushing past limits is celebrated in art and experimental film, but frowned upon everywhere else.

JG: As a teenager, I was profoundly influenced by several writers I discovered by accident when I found a Playboy magazine in the next-door neighbor’s trash. In the magazine, there was an interview with Allen Ginsberg, who mentioned in passing Beat writers like Jack Kerouac. Those influences shaped my sensibilities. Then, in my early twenties, I realized I could leverage my criminal proclivities in the name of art. 

BLVR: Right—in addition to the shoplifting and the drugs, you assume roles like a Peeping Tom, filming through other people’s windows, or an anarchist smashing bank windows. 

JG: In the late 1970s I was reading French-influenced film theory and was fascinated by the “theory of the gaze.” I set out to make a film about voyeurism in mainstream movies, and I was planning to match Hollywood scenes with scenes from real life. I was gathering these scenes by climbing across neighbors’ rooftops, or sneaking into strangers’ backyards, in order to peer through their windows. The focus of the film slowly changed from illustrating a theoretical idea to exploring a psychopathological behavior, which fascinated me a whole lot more. I went to pretty extreme lengths to get the material for that film, and I started looking into other areas of pathological behavior. I didn’t have to look far, because in my own life I was exhibiting similarly deviant behavior. Heroin was my ticket into a world of thugs, gangsters, sex workers, and outsiders of all sorts. I understood, as a teenager reading Cocteau and Burroughs, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Genet and Corso, that documenting and indulging in deviant behavior was a perfectly acceptable artistic strategy to pursue. It did have its drawbacks, of course, and there was a considerable price to pay. I could not fully become a psychopath with no conscience, so I managed the attendant guilt via the “confessional” mode. 

BLVR: That’s an interesting comparison. But to generalize, I don’t think Confessions romanticizes debauchery the way some of the authors you mention do. There’s a sense that you are conflicted about your lifestyle even as you’re adamant about rejecting the mainstream. At times, you do at least try to assimilate; you call about a job at Dunkin’ Donuts, but they tell you that you need doughnut-making experience. At the end, though, you’ve changed your mind and insist, “I can’t afford a job. I got my research! Someone’s gotta do it. . .” 

Shortly after you say that, the credits roll, and we see that the film is funded by numerous grants from prestigious legacy organizations: the Guggenheim Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, Creative Capital, and the New York State Council on the Arts. And one can’t help but wonder if the whole film was not just an alibi to get money and avoid getting a “real job”! 

JG: I wish it could be that easy. But, of course, I did the hard work of gathering the footage for the film well before I ever applied for, or thought of applying for, a grant. And when I first applied for funding for Confessions, I was rejected. I had applied to the Jerome Foundation in part because the film was greatly inspired by Jerome Hill’s Film Portrait (1972), a memoir-film that Hill made shortly before he died. Unfortunately, the Jerome Foundation rejected my proposal, as it rejected every proposal I submitted over the years. Fortunately, the Guggenheim Foundation came through, just when my appetite for petty crime had waned. I have to give credit to the Guggenheim people, because I had no academic affiliation at the time. I think the respectability of an academic position helps loosen the purse strings of funding organizations. I can’t imagine getting a grant to make a film now. 

BLVR: The film is about how society pathologizes people who don’t want to work, even though we all know that work is, as you put it in the film, “boring and stressful.” Your source of income—shoplifting—is considered a scam, but I am wondering: Do you think having a job as an artist or a professor is any less of a scam? The ways people get those kinds of positions often seem so arbitrary, it’s hard to argue that they are earned or the fruits of hard work. And, certainly, almost no one is a genius in a way commensurate with how some artists or professors are elevated. That’s why impostor syndrome is so rampant. I’m thinking about how I once got a yearlong fellowship with no deliverables. It was only a few years after I worked in fast food, which is really demanding work, and I definitely felt like I was grifting. 

JG: Regarding whether I believe a teaching job is a scam, I would say decidedly not. Unlike other jobs I had before “breaking bad,” at the age of twenty-five, I considered teaching a big responsibility and treated it very seriously. I did at times experience impostor syndrome, especially when students would address me as “Professor.” It seemed unreal to me that I seemed to be good at it, and I was surprised to be rehired year after year, until I reached the term limits of a non-
tenured position. I understand that the way faculty are hired and promoted and tenured is often unrelated to actual teaching efficacy, and in some ways academia is a kind of “racket,” just as grantsmanship is clearly unrelated to actual achievement and talent. 

BLVR: Yeah. Certainly, teaching is important work! And for me, at least, it comes with a clear sense of purpose. Anyway, you stole mostly art books. Is that because they are more expensive? 

JG: Art books became my treasure for two reasons: they were expensive for their size and could easily be exchanged for cash. Long before I made my living by selling “purloined” books, I collected books in an almost fetishized way. I could never read all the books I managed to collect in my few years in San Francisco. When that first occurred to me, I had no choice but to sell my precious collection. It was extremely painful. 

In Berkeley, where I first began in the book trade, academic books were the most fungible. Across the bay, in San Francisco, not so much. In my heyday of book-dealing, I would first acquire a trove of the priciest and most arcane tomes from the UC Berkeley bookstore, then a confederate would sell them for 33 percent of their retail value (as reviewer copies) at a bookstore a few blocks away, on Telegraph Avenue. Then I would return to that bookstore, steal all the books back, and sell them at the used-book store across the street. They caught on eventually. 

BLVR: You said in a 2016 interview with The Paris Review that you wanted to make another version of Confessions of a Sociopath that was “convincing,” because some people think the film is ironic. How’s that going? 

JG: I felt the film was sometimes not taken seriously enough. Some viewers thought some scenes were fiction, though they are strictly documentary; I was chagrined when the critic J. Hoberman, in his review of my film Living in the World (from which several scenes were excerpted for Confessions), surmised that my psychiatrist in the film was an actor. While my psychiatrist had at one time had acting ambitions, he certainly was not acting for my film. 

Since making Confessions, I’ve ventured into more extreme forms of sociopathy via my experiences with bank robbery and incarceration. The sequel to Confessions that I’m working on now will be less inhibited than the original because I no longer have any reason to hide my experiences. 

BLVR: I want to ask you about a few scenes. There’s footage of you being interviewed onstage in front of an audience. We don’t see them, but we hear them laughing. What’s that from? 

JG: The scenes with an audience were filmed at the Boston Film/Video Foundation around 1983, when Spalding Gray presented his theater piece Interviewing the Audience. I volunteered at intermission because all the interviewees were so milquetoast and boring. The audience was starved for some humor, and I think they overreacted; their laughter seemed over-the-top. 

BLVR: There’s also some blurry black-and-white footage of you shoplifting books; it has a low frame rate. I’m curious if that’s really surveillance footage or if you created it. I can imagine you telling the security officers that you were just acting for a film and that the shoplifting wasn’t “real,” especially since you mention giving very intellectualized reasons for your crimes. 

JG: I simulated the look of security camera footage by lowering the frame rate, degrading the image, and converting it to black-and-white. I wish I could have obtained some actual security footage of me in action. (I’ve subsequently obtained Capital One’s security footage of me robbing the bank.)

In most of the stores where I “worked,” security cameras were prominent, but I generally disregarded them because I assumed no one was watching them. The cameras, like the security gates at exits, gave the booksellers a false sense of security. Still, shoplifting was so stressful that I can’t imagine doing it now. 

The bit about “intellectualized reasons for stealing” comes from the McLean Hospital intake notes when I was first admitted, in 1980. I have no idea what I told them. I mentioned my literary mentors William Burroughs and Kerouac, and they didn’t know what I was talking about. 

BLVR: Do you have any new thoughts or perspectives on Confessions in this moment of calls for police abolition, spurred by police brutality against Black people? 

JG: If I were another color and/or class, I would probably have been sentenced to five years in prison for my transgressions [the 2014 bank robbery] in Providence, instead of probation. I did serve my one-year sentence at Rikers, shortened by four months for good behavior. I was granted bail, but simply couldn’t afford the fifty thousand dollars. Bail reform has changed that, at least in New York City. As it turns out, the documentary that was recently finished about my adventures in crime, How to Rob Banks for Dummies, was produced in the worst climate for its subject matter. No one is interested in the travails of a privileged, male, white middle-class artist. 

BLVR: What are you up to these days? Tony Oursler, the American video artist, told me you’ve been running. 

JG: I have, throughout my life, gone through cycles of profound decadence alternating with extravagant sobriety. I am presently enjoying the latter. I’m a senior citizen now, so I’m doing everything I can to optimize myself so as to live long enough to complete all my unfinished projects. So I’m trying to get back to the physical condition of myself twenty years ago. I have so much more work to do, sorting through the hundreds of hours of footage I’ve recorded, and I have to be in excellent health so I can finish everything. I have about fifteen unfinished films, dating back to Doppelgänger,from 2005, featuring Tony Conrad at the Lenox Hotel in Buffalo [New York]. We shot hours of video with multiple cameras. There is a project with Tony Oursler and Tony Conrad that is unfinished, and then there are at least three video projects I shot with my wife, Deborah Meehan, that I’m very eager to get to work on. So I’ve dedicated myself to sifting and sorting through the many hours of photos, videos, and audio I’ve recorded over the years, with the goal of producing not only a comprehensive yet entertaining narrative of my recent trials and vicissitudes but also colorful episodes from the past that I was never able to present in public. As always, I see my role in society as a grand troublemaker, or “mistake maker.” I make the mistakes so others can learn from them. 

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