Luke Fischbeck is an artist, composer, and organizer living in Los Angeles, one part of lucky dragons (a musical and artistic collaboration with Sarah Rara), one part of Human Resources (a non-profit arts organization). He published Beyond Majority Rule with Hesse Press in 2018. He was also a co-founder of KCHUNG, a freeform radio station based in LA's Chinatown, and a founding member of the Sumi Ink Club, a platform for collaborative art.
Ana Iwataki (b. 1989 in Los Angeles; lives and works in Los Angeles) is a curator, writer, and translator. She has curated exhibitions independently, in collaboration with Marion Vasseur Raluy, and as co-director of Shanaynay, Paris. She is currently the Associate Curator with the FLAX Foundation, which promotes mutual understanding between the artistic communities of Southern California and France.
This conversation took place May 2018 in Los Angeles, when Beyond Majority Rule had just been published. It was transcribed by Iwataki, with later copy-editing by Clare and Jane Kelly.
LF: Do you know Annie Besant, or Blavatsky, the Theosophists? They have a place in Los Angeles that published pamphlets, near USC, starting at the beginning of the 20th century. This spiritual diagram of the relationship of the group to the outside world is described in the book somewhere. It's here: "The concept for our group manifests itself in Manifoldness, Diversity, and Variety, yet ever-remaining One, Unity, and Identical." I simplified it to make it more legible, but it's from this religious tract.
AI: One of the things that I did when I was prepping for this was read the descriptions of lucky dragons, Human Resources, the Sumi Ink Club, and of KCHUNG, and there seems to be a thread being revealed in this book. Did you write them?
LF: The Human Resources one I didn't… I've only tweaked it.
AI: I'm a translator, and you use translation as a way of talking a lot about this. I think a lot about letting someone else's work become representative of your own work in collaboration and it seems that there are different degrees, as Luke Fischbeck, as lucky dragons, as it blooms outwards, giving over different degrees of control and letting someone else's work become more part of your representation and part of your identity. Did you work in collaborations before working with Sarah?
LF: For sure, this [Beyond Majority Rule] is actually the first thing I've ever put in my name on as an individual.
AI: Wow! Really? Ever?
LF: Well, I guess when I was a student I would do student work. That was collaborative, but because I studied film, and you know, you work with other people. But that's different.
AI: What does it feel like, doing this on your own?
LF: Oh, it's cool. Even when you're doing something that's so open, there's a feeling that you need to protect its openness. But in this case, it's like, no it can just be open. No one wants you to close it down. Nobody is going to try to impose a definitive interpretation onto it. It can just be readable in a variety of ways.
AI: It's still unsure what's you and what's not, in this book.
Excerpt from Beyond Majority Rule by Luke Fischbeck, published 2018
LF: Well, yeah, it is, for me, this thing of recognizing a thought in the world. Seeing something somebody has done and thinking, "Oh, I think like that." Or, just an affinity. Right when I was finishing putting this book together I saw this Arthur Jafa show in Berlin. He seamlessly blended together work by other artists—collaborators, friends, but also found material—in such a way that you would walk through them, or see them in sequence in a screening room. And I was really struck by how comfortable it all was. And then there was a picture of me in the show.
AI: Did you know about it before?
LF: Friends of mine were working on a book with him and they said there was a picture of me in the book, and I didn't really know what that meant. He does these scrapbooks in which he collects images. But then it was a film that was just image, image, image, image to a very repetitive sound. And there was a picture of me, a really abject picture of me lying face down.
AI: A picture of a performance?
LF: Yeah. That was a moment of recognizing myself outside of myself, also it's a picture of an out-of-body experience, kind of. But starting to think about creative work that is out-of-body as opposed to other kinds of work that are very embodied. Like, performance would be very embodied, but doing something like a book or visual art isn't necessarily. Probably lots of people find this very intuitive. But for me, it was something I needed to learn.
AI: Personally, I feel a little more struggle figuring out where the boundaries are or should be when I do something that might be a little more at odds with the creative act, like at odds with my own ego, like translating or curating, versus something like writing, which comes from my own body.
LF: With the accountability to the writing.
AI: But there is still the same accountability, because even putting time into something, putting myself into something I've translated. I guess I don't have a question, it's just something I think about a lot, and it seems like it's not even a question for you.
LF: Well, I think that it is a thing to learn. Well, here's my work in collaboration, or my own work, or work for other people. There are probably points along that spectrum, but to recognize that each one informs the other is especially important to the collaborative stuff. To recognize that you're all coming to it with your own preconceptions, ideas, ambivalences, there are all these things that weigh in on any contribution you make. There was this conference I went to years ago, "Work in Progress", it was all different people talking about things, works in their field that weren't finished, and it was so cool. I really liked what the translators were presenting, because I guess I hadn't really thought about it being something that had so many points at which it could go in different directions. And to look at a translation in progress was way more interesting to me than trying to approach a finished translation as something that had points of entry. You could do a translation that could preserve that openness, and I guess people do. Translating is pretty core to any recording that we (lucky dragons) do, as well as any writing. Something I prefer to the paradigms of interactivity or participation, is listening or translation. I like putting things in these terms.
AI: I also read something in which you were talking about listening as being very active.
LF: Yeah, Sarah [Rara] is super into that. I think Sarah had this huge flip, where she was thinking about the relationship between performer and audience as being seeking, probing. You play something and listen to the response. From there, it became looking at the role of the audience as an active, determining role, rather than a passive role. I think there's a lot of cognitive psychology about putting your perspective into the world in an active way rather than just receiving it. I'm still figuring this one out.
AI: I'm thinking also about what you were saying about trying to represent your own pain to somebody. There has to be a really active position on the other side of wanting to hear about this pain and being prepared to receive someone else's experience of pain or suffering.
LF: Oh my god, totally. There's this book... Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, have you read it? I love her writing, but a lot of it deals with the case study of Amnesty International having to convince people of the actuality of torture. Looking at the language they use in their campaigns to convey what's happening with torture. Because like you're saying, it's abstract. So I think a lot of this is about how we go beyond. I love the word beyond. Always beyond.
AI: You were planning on teaching a class about this right?
LF: Something related. The class was about empathy and memory, and specifically looking at the experience of being an audience. It started as a collaborative research project between the Center for the Art of Performance and the Consciousness and Metacognition Lab at UCLA. So it's like a psychology lab and performance curators, and they were looking at how being audience helped or hindered the creation of empathy or memories. Specifically looking at changing bias or implicit association within audiences who watched a performance, or did workshops with the performers, or looked at documentation of performance, and how this affected their ability to create empathy and memories. It was through the collaboration with the psychology lab that I came to learn all this stuff about research ethics.
AI: Something we don't do so well in art.
LF: Art does it so differently. The performance curators seemed to be constantly banging their heads against the wall of the experiment's design. Things like having the students enrolled in the class and the experiment's subjects be the same group was really problematic, but there are ways of structuring it so that the group can be both.
AI: I also want to talk about consensus. I was thinking of poetry being radical because of its inefficiency. Does consensus feel like it's the same?
LF: I think one of the initial thoughts, before the book, was the sense that's conveyed in the title: Beyond Majority Rule. Democracy is a total cheat. But consensus is too, enforced in ways that aren't natural and don't feel right. So this book is, in part, looking at the history of utopian or collectivist movements that have different shades of consensus as part of their decision-making process, and trying to draw some of the problems that were encoded into those groups because of how much stock they placed in consensus. And then trying to imagine what else there could be. Something that is not consensus and is not voting. I really like more antagonistic modes of democracy which preserve difference and allow for mutual aid, more anarchist ways of thinking. It's funny because KCHUNG [a freeform radio station in Los Angeles] has always had a sort of lifestyle anarchism. That's always been a critique: like, you guys aren't really practical. You just have the most surface level engagement with structurelessness; it's kind of funny because it keeps bubbling and churning, sometimes a structure will appear and then dissolve. Consensus is one form of beautiful, radical inefficiency.
AI: Human Resources [a nonprofit arts space in Los Angeles] kind of seems like it's moved the other way, a structure that stays at a certain level or pace and things within it move around.
LF: I think that's just a matter of shared resources; it's the simplest form of communism. “We have the space, we have the calendar, let's keep this going.” And just that very elementary form of communism is extremely gentle. It can be. I think there were moments in HR's history when it was not gentle, but that may have been just a lack of communication. I think that once we put basic communication protocols in place things got a lot easier.
AI: Did you notice an average lifespan of the utopian collectives that you were looking at?
LF: They're all over the place. Well, there's the classical utopian age in America and those were often tied to an individual or a core group and when the person died, the thing would fold. But some would last more than a generation. Looking at the ways they transition out of it is always interesting. Well, what came next? Like Clare [Kelly]'s ancestors in the Oneida community [founded by John Humphrey Noyes, a radical utopian preacher]. They ended up making silverware.
Excerpt from Beyond Majority Rule by Luke Fischbeck, published 2018
AI: You and Clare have some kind of overlap with Catholic Worker backgrounds.
LF: Yeah totally! It's funny. My parents are deeply steeped in that tradition.
AI: And then you moved into being more interested in Quakers.
LF: I went to Quaker school, where “meeting” is a big part of it.
AI: It seems like somewhat of a foundation for this project. And more in general, of what you do.
LF: I found this book, Beyond Majority Rule. It was a Jesuit doing a survey of how Quakers make decisions when they don't make votes. It's a great book because you need an outside perspective, but then you have this very specific outside perspective, of someone from a much more structured, hierarchical religious structure. It's almost like if it had been somebody more humanist then it would be looking at a religious organization with all the problems of a religious organization, but since it's one religious organization looking at another it almost cancels out. It looks at it as one way of making decisions versus another. I like how simple it was.
AI: When was it written?
LF: In the 80s. But yeah, I grew up in Philadelphia, which is like the Quaker capital of America. But when I was younger, I didn't appreciate that there were different kinds of Quaker. So the most common kind of Quakerism is more like Evangelical Christian. They're very conservative. Like Richard Nixon kind of Quakers. So when you're out here, you have like Orange County, Nixon from Whittier kind of Quakers. Then all across the Midwest it's very conservative Christian Quakers, and it's not that different from other Evangelical Protestants. But the more social justice Quakers are a very small percentage.
AI: But those are the Quakers that everybody knows about!
LF: Yeah, well you get that in Philadelphia, New York, Berkeley, Pasadena, Santa Monica. But that's sort of what the structure of the religion always was. There were pockets that were autonomous. And then they would have these meetings where you would come together. But they're very loose and affinity-based. There's no hierarchy to it. I mean, there's a hierarchy. But it doesn't trickle down. Sorry, I'm not describing it right. It seems too important a point to be loose with.
AI: In what sense is there hierarchy?
LF: Well, the basic structure is that there is the weekly meeting; that would be your local one. And in that meeting, there's a clerk, someone who takes notes or keeps track of the history. Who's attending, how people are doing, what are the concerns of the group. And they do a lot of listening and translating of the news of the group.
AI: Do they transcribe people's speech?
LF: Sometimes it's referred to as reading. So they "read" the group. Sometimes they're "listening", sometimes they're "clerking". Their job is to draw out...
AI: Do they have to be elected to do that or do they volunteer?
LF: They volunteer and it rotates out. I imagine that there are some groups that do something like an nomination. It would be discussed in a group who should be the clerk.
AI: And they would reach it by consensus.
LF: I'm going to say something really contentious, because some people feel differently, but they don't operate on consensus. It's more the sense that there's a decision that already exists and that has to be listened to. So it's not like forming a consensus, it's more drawing out.
AI: And they think that decision is one made by God?
LF: Well, it's complicated. There's a strain of Quakerism that's more humanist and it's looking at God as something that's distributed in people. So it's this sort of problem of language, is God external or internal? If God is internal, then it's sort of like individuals are making this choice. I'm not very religious… it's something I'm deeply interested in but not committed to. I recognize it's something that's part of my worldview… that power is distributed and truth is distributed. This led Quakers to do horrible things, like invent solitary confinement. The idea that you need to get in touch with your "light.” They call this distributed Godliness a "light.” You're not recognizing that you have God in you and so you go in a room by yourself and draw the light out by yourself. Normally you'd be in the group and through silent meditation you would be in touch with the way this light is distributed throughout the group. But sometimes this structure would break, and people would not be in touch with their own light, and would not recognize it in others. I think Quakers would go into prisons and see that there were still these badly formed groups. So I was interested in that, like what is a bad group? In the book I started exploring this through more of the geometric models of bad groups. This friend of mine said, “I thought the book would be more like org charts.” Sort of how groups are structured. So for Quakers, the decision exists in the group, they just have to draw it out. They don't form it by a piece of this and a piece of that. It's not dialogue-driven, which is sort of the problem. It's not like, “Let's talk this through, let's work it out.” Which other groups definitely do. The Quakers are like, “No, we just need to listen to it. We're just going to keep sitting here silently until it comes out.” And if you stand up and speak, if you testify, you're not supposed to do that in response to something someone else said and you're not supposed to do it more than once. I don't think I'm speaking authoritatively [here], I'm speaking to my understanding of it. I am deeply aware that I have a very narrow understanding of it. Which is cool, because I've preserved this one interpretation of it. And there are absolutely other kinds. 90% of Quakers are not like this.
AI: Do you participate in groups by consensus?
LF: I have, yeah.
AI: What has it been like?
LF: I often find myself going to this position, which I think people don't value enough, which is basically ambivalence. I don't actually have a stake in this. I included it here: "I disagree, but I don't want to stand in the way." Recently, I was working on a group with this artist Olga Koumoundouros, and it was a group that she formed. Well, so it sounds crazy to say this, but the initial idea for the show she had was half [Netflix TV show] Sens8 and half Rosi Braidotti, kind of nomadic subject in this cluster intersubjectivity. Did you watch this show?
AI: No, but I have the gist of it I think.
LF: That's why I agreed to be part of it at first, I was like, “I love both of those things!” She chose a really great group of artists to do it and it was eight people, just like Sens8. Coming from overlapping but different backgrounds. And very early on we decided we were going to do everything by consensus. And I think people thought, that if we do consensus, it's shorthand for respectful and just. I think maybe there should be more thought given to how we create a respectful and just environment, rather than having the consensus process stand in for respect and justice. Differences that were inherent in the group persisted, and made it so that any consensus we had was unsatisfying. And some decisions would come up that people didn't have strong feelings about but they were compelled to have a feeling about it. And being compelled to have an opinion can feel deeply dehumanizing. Sometimes you want to just to navigate subjectivity on your own, as not part of the group.
AI: What about working in lucky dragons? It's very different when the group is just two. In some ways, all of those issues are heightened. And the position of ambivalence is much harder to hold.
LF: Yeah, totally. It becomes more like giving up agency when it's so small a group. And so to speak, a permanent group. It's the founding principle. I keep talking about the impetus of things, I don't know why I keep pointing to the initial thoughts.
AI: That's when the lines in the sand are drawn.
LF: And it's also kind of anecdotal, it's interesting for me to remember what the initial question was, because of course other questions came up, but for lucky dragons the initial question was how to be permanent. Whatever happens, this entity that we've constructed as a collective, collaborative group, it persists. In some ways it was more a question of what happens to content. Something like music, which is really lightweight and is easy to have continuously distributed, to look at ways to create things that would persist continuously. But then, it does put a lot of pressure on making decisions as a group, because you realize that if you abdicate responsibility you know that this abdication is encased in a permanence. You want to have a balance of power.
AI: What are some of the ways you've learned to deal with this?
LF: It's really interesting. Sometimes it's paralyzing but in a good way. Doing less. I think also granting each other a kind of advocacy, where each one of us can advocate for the group as a whole. So say, Sarah can go do a performance as lucky dragons and I can go do a performance as lucky dragons. But then of course there's the problem of how people recognize us after that. If I play a show as lucky dragons, I'll get correspondence from people being like, “I saw you do your thing.” And likewise for Sarah. So it's confusing. Ideally, we would both kind of step away from it and it would keep going on its own somehow. That's always been a thought.
AI: It seems there are already things that you've created that might achieve that.
LF: There's the Infinite Menudo idea. Do you know the pop group Menudo ?
AI: No, what is it?
LF: Menudo was a boy band that started in the 1970's I think—as soon as one of the members got to a certain age they would replace him with somebody younger. So it could go forever and the members would always be the same age.
AI: I used to run a space in Paris called Shanaynay and it works the same way; every time someone leaves, someone replaces them. And it's the same thing, someone will see me here and say, "Oh, it's too bad Shanaynay doesn't exist anymore.” Or I'll still get things, each of the members will still be solicited by a certain person or organization that sees us respectively as Shanaynay.
LF: How did you come up with the idea of how many people was the right number?
AI: It started with the two who founded it, and they were replaced by four people. It felt like the right number for the kind of work it is, how much time people could devote to it. And it also became apparent that trying to make curatorial decisions with more than four people for every show was going to be too unwieldy. And with three people, it could become a two against one situation.
LF: I think that three is a very strong number.
AI: For working together.
Bibliography for Beyond Majorty Rule
LF: Yes, but just in general. I got really into the video artist Paul Ryan who was part of the collective Raindance Corporation and helped publish Radical Software. He had this whole video production system that was based on Charles Peirce, pragmatist, three degrees of engaging with the world. Everything has a first, second, and third degree of qualities. And to have a crew making work together, collaboratively, you could each look at one of these degrees. "Firstness" would be physical qualities, how things are sensed, “secondness” would be linguistic, and “thirdness” would be things that connected a thing to its context. So breaking things down, always into three, really obsessed with threeness. It's almost religious. Like everything can be seen in three ways. I like working in groups of three!
AI: In French, there are first, second, and third degrees of humor. From literal to surreal humor. I also really like group shows with three artists. I think you have to be really precise in a way that you don't have to be with two or four. So, to go back to the book for a second. The image recognition—that's what those are right? They're incredibly beautiful.
LF: There are a couple of different ones... these are all taking these different face recognition technologies, working with techniques and demonstration images from the original patent applications, and working backwards to generate new, plausible faces. They're based on the idea that you can take any image that has a high number of features, like, all the points on a face that make it unique, and you can come up with a simplified representation of it, a sort of map. Then you can have ten different maps, and combining them in some way, with different ratios, could give you any face whatsoever. So these take the lower-dimensional face maps, these proto-faces, and puts them back together. The original technique is supposed to represent the variety of the original set in a way that, if it were given a face it hadn't seen before, it could give it a description. It says that any face is a combination of these separate proto-faces. The same way you would say any color is a combination of these ten colors, for example. Taking that set of proto-faces, or essentialized feature maps, you would usually assign percentages—it's 10% of this one, 5% of this one—and these ratios give you a description of the wholeness of it. So in that way, I was interested in it representing something whole as an index of abstractions. But then to use it generatively, to combine those proto-faces, to make new faces, was for me a way to try to capture variety. Or the problems of the infinite space? These are generated using the mappings, but rather than using them as identifying tools, using them as generative tools.
AI: They're really incredible but there's also something a little scary about them. To make something aesthetic or abstract is also an act of erasure, it's almost kind of violent.
LF: I think I've been using the word abstraction very loosely for a while, but another way to think of it is as compression. So taking something that is very unwieldy and varied and compressing it into a portable translation of that. It gets rid of information that's not directly useful, right? So, if what we want to capture is the variety then we get rid of any information that's not related to capturing that variety. And that's what this recognition technology does. It doesn't capture uniqueness, but it captures difference. Which is an interesting, subtle distinction. But it is something that requires there to be a group, right? So it's not like trying to capture a face for its oneness but for its relation to any face whatsoever. So then to take that, and reverse it, to try to generate something unique...
AI: Existing in a group, there are going to be acts of erasure and acts of violence and acts of forgetting, all the things that we need to communicate with each other efficiently, or at all. So it also means that you have to dampen down parts of yourself. Whatever weird associations you'll have, so that you can function in a way that's harmonious, or functional.
LF: Well, harmony is another really interesting question. Harmonic order is something predetermined—there is a harmonic order and we have to find it. But I think a lot of what is lost is selfhood, and what is gained is groupness. The relations are gained and strengthened. So I don't know if it's necessarily negative to lose identity. Ego. But to define the conditions of your connection to a group is one pathway of finding yourself. But it's not my area of expertise, I wish it were. There are always these areas I wish I was more expert in. But then it's like no, I can just appreciate it, point to it. It sounds so cheesy, but then, that's what art allows.
AI: Oh totally. We're so privileged that we get to be as irresponsible as we are with content. It's amazing.
LF: Yeah, it's like, "I kind of just like the way this feels." But there's also this pressure to make an expert statement. And it's going to be definitive and it's going to be super backed up and have its own internal logic that is unassailable. And it's something that's always kind of bugged me about the way that art is presented is that object and explanation exist in this perfect combination. Or object and interpretation and explanation, they need each other. In a way that maybe just the interpretation could suffice, or just the object could suffice, but instead there's this really tight connection that creates the value of it.
AI: Yes, it's something I think about in my capacity as an arts writer or curator. It's a very delicate relationship. It's scary writing something, like writing a press release for example, that is going to be the thing that people refer to—forever. And so much of it, it's not a direct connection at all—it's like translation, it's one option amongst hundreds of others. The language used to describe something.
LF: There is an appropriated press release in the book: "It's no surprise...the self is at once we and they." I have this running collection of pull quotes from press releases. It's such an unusual way of writing. The voice is so removed. Whenever people submit one to Human Resources—people generally write their own press releases, which is hilarious because the style and tone are all over the place—but then we always have to decide whether to post it as-is or to change it, or suggest a change. The only thing I consistently ask people to change is when they speak as HR.
AI: Like, “HR is delighted to present...”
LF: Exactly! HR doesn't have emotions. Strike that. HR is just a building and an organization. But thinking of that kind of fragile relationship between the interpretation and the thing—and explaining intent and connecting to other things, there is this kind of social analogue to that. The way identities are constructed...we do require narratives and context. Looking at badly-formed groups was especially interesting to me. The way people kind of come together in pursuit of consensus in really awkward ways. It has a formal quality to it.
AI: A formal quality...
LF: Oh, they just make nice shapes! Like, just the effort of building that fragile network of connections in ad hoc ways. Just something we see happen in the art world, as the creators of content, or curators, or whatever. It happens over and over again. Like you said, there are sorts of tropes. And it feels like something that we perform. And you know, I'm even saying "we", which is so weird! But it's interesting to see those forms, how people try to achieve them in ad hoc ways. Working collectively, saying we're going to try this, we're going to send out a press release, we're going to put art on the wall, we're going to have a little printout that explains what everything is...
Luke Fischbeck by John Wiese
AI: It's actually really lovely to think about all those different kinds of attempts at grouping in the art world. Like galleries coming together to make a gallery-share thing, or an art fair, or a group show.
LF: It's beautiful. And I think you could look at it with whatever attitude you wanted to, you could be like this is so crass, or so naive. Or you could just be like this is really exciting. Or just passively listening to it, this is just what's happening. And participate in it too, or not. I think art also allows for a lot of non-participation.
AI: Like, active non-participation.
LF: Jennifer Doyle, one of the HR members, had a way of putting it: "High activity, low accountability"—or something like that—as one way for a group to define itself, a record of actions instead of attributions.