An Interview with Kandis Williams
vn-v4: Thanks Kandis for doing this interview! Let’s begin by talking about your art practice, specifically in regards to the PDF-OBJECTS project. Is it fair to describe your practice as being a librarian, maybe an “outsider librarian” for lack of a better term?
KW: That sounds so nice for a very new dimension of my work. I have been thinking about the violence of writing as a means of recording life, and subsequently, the danger and violence that a mass of historical writing represents to the sentient consciousness of our morals and our claims to ethics. I’m feeling torn between a kind of compulsive desire to capture and re-capture archives from that violence.
I think of the librarian in another way now, residing at the frontlines of understanding the impact of conquest, and the dissonance of victors, masters, slave owners, nationalists, and other writers of history—and our feelings of selfhood and the experience of a greater, more matrixial understanding of our networked forms of communication, memory and time.
Now, I’m reading into Hypatia and the library of Alexandria. For that reason, I can consider Hypatia as the first librarian, but also a curator and in light of the destructive flames of Alexandria, she could be thought of as the first preservationist. The library as a site of knowledge and collection is a target or element of what’s at stake when we go to war.
I’m also re-reading W.E.B. Du Bois. He seemingly self appoints himself as the reincarnation of Herodotus, looking at the great emotion of the archive he created around black life during reconstruction. The archive will always be violently incomplete without the passion to otherwise shape it. Du Bois is like a monastic recorder of life.
A life that feels doomed to be prematurely interrupted. I think he’s still profoundly understudied as a historian, like Hypatia.
There’s a foundational question of ethics, the question of what we leave, give and teach about the future, what we expect of the future, and the language around that.
They’re both intermediaries, looking at how the lives of some will look to the future, after those lives are wiped away.
vn-v4: Your reference to Hypatia, who was murdered by a mob, then resurrected as a “martyr for philosophy” and Du Bois who was prosecuted for his activism, is compelling. The librarian acts as a guardian, a protector of culture, information and histories. Du Bois and Hypatia were forced into the margins of history and considered cultural outsiders. How can we position the library as an alternative space that can function in the spirit of Hypatia and Du Bois, as a response to power and control?
KW: I think that libraries have always functioned as a space to respond to power and control. In that way, they must burn cyclically with the forces of power and dominance that seek to establish them.
Oral traditions and many indigenous epistemologies suffer predominantly by being eradicating as visible systems of reference because they can’t compete with textual authority en masse. Text and coded language is bound to law and governance. If we accept that “archiving” like Barthes says, fastens us to “fact” like dead butterflies in glass cases, then our archiving projects would start with more Du Boisian ethical parameters.
Maybe our “archive” could be a hospital, a school or a farm, and the resource of education wouldn’t be made into an object or something “objectifiable.”
Rather, it can be collected for its application and use.
Hypatia was a mathematician of the highest study, but also a spirited educator. She taught philosophy and astronomy and they say she would sometimes burst into lecture in the streets.
Du Bois rode through the rural south largely on horseback and in the company of non-allies, rallying to start new schools for the Freedmen of his generation after studying abroad. They both feel like the librarian or the archivist fraught with the re-distribution of power from the understanding of its rarity and in relation with a moral compass. Maybe that is an “alternative” placing of the archive.
I center these two librarians because I don’t like the idea of placing either of them in the margins.
They both feel more centrifugal. There’s always more inertia in the margins or where ever the risk of annihilation is less abstract.
The archive and the library are also central to the mechanism.
vn-v4: I agree, they’re both certainly centrifugal to the production and distribution of knowledge even if they lectured in the streets or rode horses to start schools. Their distinctive methods have much in common with your PDF-OBJECTS—a “counter-distributive” network, an autonomous yet centrifugal process for activist tendencies.
KW: Lately, I just feel like we have to pay respect to how much weight the “holes” in the archive hold for future reclamation of justice, the self and the family—how much fiction has been and is produced as historicity. The library is that battle ground.
vn-v4: This might be a good time to talk about your publishing project, Cassandra. The mythological Cassandra (also known as Alexandra) was able to tell the future but because of a curse, no one would believe her predictions.
KW: Yes! Taylor Doran, my partner in the project introduced the myth and namesake to me a few years ago. As a mythological figure she’s definitely overlooked even today, a communicative oversight. She was the only one to foresee the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy.
We try to invoke her through the reissue and redistribution of political texts from that ether and inertia that we spoke about earlier. I love Cassandra because I feel the myth speaks directly to the subject of history shaped by a Du Boisian “double consciousness,” the dance around knowing what is coming (or what crime is afoot) and bearing it because you have no language, credibility, representation or agency. Being given this intensely ominous gift of knowing and not being able to intervene.
I think she is also like the patron saint of criminals of the state, of surveillance paranoia, and the information war. She’s like a martyr of the black femme as a voiceless witness to slavery genocide and generations of rape. Her story is also haunted by rape and self-determination.
I like the idea of “prophecy” playing a role in tragedy that is maybe more in line with a sense of balancing power. I guess a guiding fantasy for me is if Cassandra’s prophecy can be heard, it could be a balance to power.
vn-v4: If the two projects, Cassandra and the PDF-OBJECTS, are a way to balance power, could they serve as a bridge between the social and the political?
That imbalance of power is held in place by the archive as a regime or site of truth, because of its usefulness to the state apparatus. Like Cassandra and Troy, the war is inevitable without the prophecy of the “incredulous.”
So yes, in a way, scavenging for texts and re-sorting them, going behind firewalls, and even directly into artist’s studios and non-exhibited works pokes some holes in the idea that the credible or validated thought regimes is where truth solely lies.
Any tear in that fabric feels like a bridge between the social and the political—an attempt, maybe a frail attempt, to realign where we look for power and how to look at power.
Kandis Williams is an artist, writer, editor, and publisher living and working in Los Angeles and Berlin. She received her BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art, New York and has had recent solo shows in New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Vienna. She has an active curatorial and writing practice, and runs CASSANDRA Press with artist Taylor Doran. Her work often explores contemporary critical theory including, but not limited to, racial-nationalism, authority and eroticism. She is also a visiting faculty member at CalArts. Kandis is represented by Night Gallery in Los Angeles. // @kandis_williams