An Interview with William Kherbek on Entropia (vol. I & II)

Abdullah Ezik

abdullah.ezik@sanatkritik.com

Habib William Kherbek, a contemporary art critic living in Berlin, is a writer who produces many different types of texts from poetry to novels, from short stories to criticism. Kherbek, who has been working in Berlin for a long time, is a very productive name as an art professional. While his academic and cultural studies show how productive he is, it is possible to say that the subjects he focuses on develop new perspectives for the readers.

Most recently, William Kherbek, who recently published his book Entropia (vol. I & II), this time combines technology and art criticism and brings to life a highly experimental project. Comprised of two volumes, Entropia contains a compendium of over one hundred reviews and interviews with luminaries of contemporary art (Vol I), as well as a speculative attempt to create a newly generated algorithmic art(ificial) critic (Vol II).

Abdullah Ezik interviewed with Habib William Kherbek about his recent works, the relationship between his fiction and non-fiction works, his literary productions and the Entropia (vol. I & II) project.

You are a special name who is interested in fiction, such as novels and poetry, and non-fiction, such as contemporary art criticism. This connection between fiction and criticism also points to a very special relationship, in my opinion. First of all, how does writing fiction affect you as a critic? Do you see any relationship/link between your fiction and criticism texts?

It’s an interesting question as writing across disciplines I think is getting harder to do as each form becomes more specialised and refined, often through university courses dedicated to it, for example courses like “auto-fiction” or one I saw during my Ph.D. called “writing London”. I think writing fiction shares one important quality with critical writing, or at least my approach to it, in that they’re both exercises in theory of mind. To write fiction, you imagine a character (usually), and if you do it well, that character has a convincing sense of identity, a “mind” of its own, so to speak. In criticism, you enter into the mind of a specific person, an artist, and you try to see where they were going with a particular work or with a particular idea and then you try to contextualise it.

In my own work, beyond that sense described above, I wouldn’t say there’s a particular connection, though the current project that I’m working on is probably for the first time an actual literary exploration from the perspective of an art critic. Using a critic I think can be an interesting device as it can allow a writer to explore the limits of the “critical” perspective in a way that’s not really feasible when one is writing “actual” criticism.

We can say that you are a poet who is closely interested in the age and the problems of the age, and we can see the elements of the period, society, and culture in your poetry. So, how does the age, world, and the period we live in reflect in your poetry?

In a lot of my poetry I’m interested in the way language intrudes on us as much as how language as a faculty of mind shapes us. We’re in possibly the most language saturated age in the history of humankind – really it’s not even debatable – more published language is produced on a yearly basis than in entire millennia of human existence. That inevitably has an impact on the way people use language and the ways in which language shapes thinking. Writers I look up to often consider the intrusive character of language – I would immediately cite John Ashbery the subject of my Ph.D. as an example. He would explore cliche in a way that I hope I do similarly with regard to imperative language from advertising and other forms of marketing.

The poetry also is a site for me to explore the ways in which my own mind works. Like most everyone I talk to, I have this endless flow of language constantly swirling in my head all day and poetry becomes a means of organising that swirl, but also of bringing a different kind of meaning to it, a meaning that anticipates a reader or at least is accessible to a reader.

As a poet and novelist, what would you say about William Kherbek’s identity as a writer? What is the most important factor that feeds and reveals your fictional productions?

Very hard question. Truthfully, I try not to think about things like what my identity as a writer is. I suppose I tend to think that could be limiting and eventually as John Updike put it “the mask eats the face” and soon you start to think of how “William Kherbek” writes in terms of themes consistency and features like those and to my mind you become more and more like yourself to the point at which you become irrelevant. I guess if I were to think of my own writing I would say I’m interested in certain themes that pervade everything I write. Power is probably my most enduring theme, how it is gained, lost, squandered, applied, abused, and abdicated. My first two novels Ecology of Secrets and ULTRALIFE specifically addressed formal state power, but then Best Practices and New Adventures, about a megalomaniacal fundraiser and a vlogger respectively, are about people who are trying to gain power, more or less successfully. Twenty Terrifying Tales from Our Technofeudal Tomorrow, a short story collection set in a dystopian future where the world is run by firms, and its nonfiction companion, Technofeudalism Rising, are even more explicitly about power and its dangers, both for victims and holders of power.

The criticism texts you have written so far have appeared in many important international publications such as Flash Art, Berlin Artlink, Mousse, Aqnb, and Map Magazine. Then you brought together your art critics in Entropia I. How did this book come to light?

It was a complicated gestation process. The book covers ten years of writing from my first art reviews basically up to the present and over that time I’ve watched as various publications I’ve worked for have gone out of business and their websites eventually became inaccessible and the reviews disappeared. This is the “entropy” the title refers to. Publications go out of business, galleries go out of business, artists stop practicing and eventually even websites disappear. The book was kind of meant to be an anatomy of that process and an analysis of the forces that drive that cultural entropy. I spoke about more language being produced than ever before, my criticism was part of that overflow of language, and like most of that language, it eventually disappears into the vast black hole of internet language. To create the airplane is to create the plane crash as Paul Virilio said. More written language is produced and lost than ever before and the idea of making a material object to compile that language was appealing, not least as it kind of cut against an early project I did a video-poem collection called Ephemera where I wrote a poem a day and posted it to Youtube, basically as a way of exploring how an ephemeral writing project could also become as permanent as any other language that is posted to the internet.

London and Berlin can be considered as two very valuable centres for art institutions and art festivals, which draw attention in your writings in the first volume of the book. So, how do these two cities mean for you both in your personal life and in the context of contemporary art? What makes Berlin and London a hub?

London has been an incredibly important city for me. I studied there, most of my friends are from there or live there, and so many defining experiences of my adult life take place there. I kind of think of myself as carrying a version of the city inside me when I’m not there. But as an art centre it is relatively young. Paris, even New York were the historical centres of “western” “art” for most of the modern period, but I think the cultural investment in the 1990s, particularly the making of museums free to the public finally truly gave London artists the audiences that they needed. London is also a major capital sink, and luxury consumption often involves fine art. Those two streams came together perhaps most fully during my time there, and I think Entropia captures that instant commodification process even if the pieces individually are never about it specifically. It emerges as a theme, an art literate audience in collaboration and in tension with a rising luxury class of art collectors.

Berlin is also a fascinating place to experience art in that it is vastly more open than London is for young artists. The high rents in London mean that an artist with a studio based practice has a hard time to remain there unless they are selling huge numbers of works for high prices. Berlin is – for the moment at least – more affordable to live and have a studio so it remains a hub for artists after they finish art school. There is also a very lively project space scene in Berlin that allows artists not working in explicitly commercial forms to find audiences. I would mention spaces like Savvy, June, gr_nd, and Horse and Pony in particular as thriving and important noncommercial spaces of the type Berlin specialises in producing.

You live in Berlin and teach at the Berlin Art Institute. I think both producing contemporary art articles and giving lectures in this field must be very important in your life practices. How does it affect you to be so full of art in every aspect of your life?

It is a very intense way of life. Teaching especially requires a prolonged engagement with the theoretical ideas animating contemporary art, so I find myself reading a lot of art theory to keep up with the latest ideas permeating degree programmes at other universities. It’s funny, in some ways it’s like I’m doing my own MA by teaching as the churn of “hot” influences seems to turn over every 18 months or so. Of course writing for publications helps a fair bit in terms of feeding my teaching as it’s literally my job to see as many shows as I can in Berlin and to think about them.

I love art, so it’s really often a lot of fun to constantly seek out and ingest new shows and new ideas, but as with everything else in a precarious age, working more or less constantly does have its discontents. Like so many people I have to string together lots of gigs to make a living and coming up with fresh ideas for that is a real challenge. I don’t think critics or even academics, except at the very highest level have the space to spend time thinking at the level of depth of someone like Susan Sontag or John Ruskin now, for better and for worse. Ideas need space but markets don’t often provide that space except at the very top. Thus, if someone wants to offer me a nice plum role at a broadsheet newspaper as an art critic, my DMs are entirely open…

It is also possible to say that some of the artists, art galleries, and institutions that you once carried to your critics are (unfortunately) no longer with us today. In this sense, we can say that your articles and conversations in the first volume of Entropia have a historical value. What would you say about Entropia‘s testimonies of contemporary art, institutions, and individuals?

I very much agree. It’s a kind of requiem really, for a way of life in art, for a hoped for vision of what art could mean in London (and beyond). As I was saying in answer to a previous question, I think of the artists who I’ve written about who have stopped working or at least dropped out of the conversation and I think about how my review might have been the only press they had and it has an existential dimension. The art critic as witness is a pompous way to describe it, but I do think of the critic as a witness who doesn’t know what they are witnessing. Your testimony about something is most relevant to the future in the things you mention casually, the things that are almost invisible to you.

One of the most striking aspects of Entropia is that it benefits from many different art theories and ideas, and in this sense, it has affinity with art theories. What do art theories point to in such a globalized world? What is the meaning/value of such theories to a critic?

It really depends on the critic. Myself, I try to approach art theories with a reasonable degree of skepticism. I think about Roland Barthes quote “You might not understand theory, but theory understands you,”; that seems to me an admission of the uselessness of a lot of theoretical ideas. Any ideology that explains everything, I tend to believe ultimately explains nothing, except perhaps something about human gullibility. I think there are numerous things to be taken from influential theorists, most of them in fact, from Derrida’s reflection on language as a system undone by its own contradictions, to Baudrillard’s fascinating insights – prophetic insights – into the workings of media, Hito Steryerl’s insights into the creation of the artistic subject, Timothy Morton’s proposition of the “hyper-object” as something to test our cognitive faculties against in an age of subjects too large for any single person to understand. These are just some of the hugely fertile ideas theory brings into the field of art, but I like to think, perhaps fatuously, that art is bigger and stranger and richer than the theories that attempt to explain or situate it. I hope it’s true at least, and the art that I like best is rarely reducible to manifestos or seminars.

In the second volume of Entropia you attempt to create a newly generated algorithmic art(ificial) critic. This is a miraculous event in itself, and the results are as exciting as the idea itself. How did this idea develop in the first place? What did the result tell you, what kind of criticisms/comments did it bring with it?

The short answer is Jack Clarke, the publisher and I were trying to think of a good reason anyone in 2022 would want to read a book of art reviews of long closed exhibitions. We wanted the book to look forward as much as backward, and in part that came with the essays and interviews in the volumes a the beginning but we also wanted something that wasn’t about what had happened more about what was possible, a kind of “proposition” as I use the term in my introductory essay; a suggestion of what could be possible. Jack is one of the most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with and he hit on the idea of a GPT-style technology – a language processing and output entity which we would train on the corpus of my writings to produce its “own” reviews. I thought the idea was incredible and Jack built the device. We had a lot of laughs feeding prompts into it and generating results. The best of them are in the book, it took a few months to reach book length but it was a very interesting process for what it revealed about the limits of the technology as well as the limits of my reviews, and indeed the review form itself. 

Looking at your art critics in Entropia I & II, what would you say about the current state of art? Where do you think the trends and tendencies of contemporary art will take us?

I do think the technological element is increasingly to the fore. Art is traditionally seen as a humanist practice, concerned with human needs, human interests. We’re living more and more in a “post-human” age as writers like Katharine Hayles, and others, have observed. There is a determination I see, particularly with this year’s Besrlin Biennale to assert the humanist possibilities of art. Art as witness, art as activism, art as archive, these are all features I’m seeing in the Biennale, which offers a counterpoint to Venice this year which – though you can’t reduce such a huge show to one theme – definitely felt to me to be looking towards a “post-human future” to use Francis Fukuyama’s term. Indeed, though I do tire of constant references to Fukuyama, you could see art as presently engaged in an interstice articulated by Fukuyama book titles: The End of History vs. Our Post-Human Future. Art at the moment in Berlin does not accept that history ever ended, indeed, art may become a means of recovering histories, but there are enough believers in “our post-human future” that that idea will also be a powerful driver of art going forward. 

William Kherbek

As a final question, what would you say about the future of contemporary art and contemporary art criticism and the relationship of these elements with technology and artificial intelligence?

I suppose I dwell on the question of how much people will want to cede to machines in the future. I worry less about AI taking over the world and turning us all into organic batteries to drain for power than I do about human beings deciding that somehow machines are “better” or “smarter” or even “more efficient” – a bizarre thing to prize in culture generally, even if it has economic uses – and then choosing to cede more and more power until we become servants of a machinic system that masquerades as a “neutral” entity. You can already see it in the ways that AI systems are used in things like parole approval in the United States. Machines make “neutral” decisions based on information that is often very limited or even racist in its design. Ruha Benjamin has written about this in the book The New Jim Code. In terms of art, I think work that actively questions the infrastructure of technology is the work that resonates most with me. People may think of James Bridle or Trevor Paglen immediately, but I think Harm van den Dorpel’s works examining the algorithm’s role in digital “information” production, or Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti’s explorations of surveillance logic built into identity tokens like NFTS, resonate strongly with me. Speaking more metaphysically, a work by Goschka Macuga The Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll also deals with this. It is a robot-philosopher who spouts “wisdom” based on scriptures a machine learning system has remixed. It’s not that different from the old Delphic Oracle from mythology but the centralisation of power AI allows means that the randomness of placing belief in “smart” systems has potentially more dangerous consequences. It’s not so much what the machines will take away from us, but what we will give them freely that worries me.

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We would like to thank Süreyyya Evren for his contribution to the realization of this interview.

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William Kherbek, born in Kansas City, KS USA in 1978, is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets (Arcadia Missa, 2013) and ULTRALIFE (Arcadia Missa, 2016), and his video-poem playlist/collection/reading retrodiction (2016) was released by Left Gallery. Kherbek’s short poetry collection, 26 Ideologies for Aspiring Ideologists, was released by If a Leaf Falls Press in 2018. His essay “Technofeudalism and the Tragedy of the Commons” (2016) appeared in the first issue of Doggerland’s journal, and he has contributed essays to the “Intersubjectivity” series from Sternberg Press, and the How to Sleep Faster series from Arcadia Missa. His visual work has been exhibited at Decad in Berlin, The Hardy Tree Gallery in London, and the Newgate Gap space in Margate, UK. His journalism has appeared in a number of publications in Europe and the US including Rhizome, Spike Magazine, AQNB, Samizdat, and Flash Art. His Ph.D. is from the University of London (2014). The topic of the thesis was the relationship of experimental literature and cognitive philosophy. Kherbek co-curated, with Lou Cantor, the 2016 Transart Triennial and he received the 2015 Rufus Stone Residency in London. He has taught at The University of the Arts in London, London Metropolitan University and the Sandberg institute in Amsterdam. He lives in Berlin.