Profiles

Japanther's Ian Vanek on the DIY scene, 'zines and the authenticity of handmade objects

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In that 'zine you did a few years ago with that Matt & Kim interview, you quote Penny Rimbaud and Harold Pinter. Why did you quote those two guys?

Penny Rimbaud is a friend that we've worked with a bunch really randomly. We met him in Germany in a castle, and we became fast friends because Matt [Reilly] were both reading the same book that we discussed with him. We've stayed at his house many times in England and made recordings with him. We put him on our records, and he's put us on his records.

He's an incredible inspiration. For people that don't know, he was in a group called the Crass Collective. They were very much dialed into the same trip of being an all-encompassing lifestyle art project that these friends form art school were really intensely crafting. Gee Vaucher and Penny -- Gee is an incredible woman as well. We got to know her through Penny.

That quote is from one of the songs we wrote together: "I am the extinguisher, I am the fire." I thought that was a beautiful quote. You can be the catalyst and the stop to kind of anything at any time. I thought that was one of the most beautiful things he's written that we've had the pleasure of hearing a billion times. It's from a song called "I the Indigene," which kind of deals with Europeans traveling through Africa and dealing with indigenous people in Africa versus Westernized cultures.

It's a topic a lot of people want to get into with punk, but Penny is definitely someone who can speak from that position. We just did another song with him based on Midsummer Night's Dream that's really cool, that we're really proud of. He released it on his Existential label.

Harold Pinter is an amazing writer. He was one of the first people to paint in a very American way. He's someone that a mutual friend of Penny and I turned me onto. She explained why she liked him, and that quote in particular ["It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place."] makes a lot of sense to me.

It's about visibility and invisibility in the public sphere. Like what we were talking about 'zines, too, and remaining not disgusted but elusive with your expression in order to let it have its own life. He was brilliant enough to put that into words so I stole it. It's from an art piece, a print I made, and I ended up putting it into the 'zine.

What about graffiti culture has a resonance with your own creativity?

I find it interesting that people are telling their own stories by any means necessary. That's always kind of interested and excited me. I like markings. I like the culture of freight trains. My grandfather worked on freight trains, and I've always had a fascination with them, I guess, somewhat, because of him, but also because they're big, beautiful behemoths that move across America. There's a lot of writing on those.

When you're kind of a teenager and you don't exactly know what's happening, you get excited about a culture just for the reason to be involved in something. When you get to know it better, you realize how beautiful it is when someone from Denver can write their name with a grease marker on a train and it can show up in New York City three days later.

And then someone in New York City and it can be back in Los Angeles within a week. That's a pretty interesting canvas to me rather than a really staunch, cold environment you can find in a museum and how hard it is to get into that world. It's not that I would reject that world. We were at the museum in Cincinnati today. That's kind of what excited me about graffiti and markings and taggings.

But to be sure the culture of it is kind of an ugly, lame one, and I'd do a disservice if I didn't mention that it's become a commodified, ugly shell of itself in the same way that skateboarding was a rebellious, individual activity that they found a way to sell successfully, and now the people who would have been initially interested in it aren't interested in it because of the involvement of big, huge corporations and the people who are marketing it like The X Games and World Industries and things like that. We see all that in graffiti as well.

I wouldn't say it's killed the things I love about it because I've figured out exactly how I want to do it and how as a group of friends how we do it. But I know that if I was a young person getting into it, I might see it as a little bit corny and ugly because of the involvement of people like Banksy or all these artists who have a high degree of visibility and what their involvement has done, as far as money getting involved and the rebel spirit being sucked out of it. But that's just one aspect of it. I think I'm attracted to it because of the ideas of the American spirit or rebel spirit of telling your story by any means necessary.

It's one of those activities that transcends time and culture. Graffiti was found in the ruins of Pompeii when archaeologists excavated the city in the 20th century after it was buried by the volcano in the First Century C.E.

It certainly is. My friend told me a story about [Joseph] Kyselak, who was in Austria in [the 1800s]. He made a bet with his friends that he could become famous in the entire Austrian Empire within three years. His friend was like, "No way you can do that; you're just a peasant." He said, "Watch, I can be famous within this entire empire." Within two years he was contacted by the emperor who said, "I want to have an audience with Kyselak. Who is this? We see this everywhere. What does this mean? What is this?"

The rumor is that he took the audience with Kyselak, and the emperor got there late, of course, and made him wait. When they left, they realized he had carved "Kyselak" in the chair while he was waiting for them. So he was famous within the entire empire within two years, and he won the bet with his friend. That's what the emperor asked, "Why are you doing this?" "I have a bet with my friend."

So that definitely transcends time. Thinking about it with that pair of eyes instead of a hip-hop pair of eyes, which is kind of ridiculous, it's losing localism in a major way in all aspects of the culture. Philadelphia used to have this very distinct tag, and still does, Philadelphia still holds true to its localism, but New York is mixed in with San Francisco now, which is mixed in with Los Angeles.

It's harder to say, "Oh this young person is from Los Angeles, probably from the eastern part of Los Angeles because of the way the 'K' goes down at the top. I can tell you that." Or "This person's from Philly. They're from the north side because there's a certain type of "E" on the bottom where there's an arrow on the bottom, not on the top." We're losing that, which is kind of a scary, sad thing that happened with the Internet. But we'll just see what happens next. I'm excited for what happens next. I try and stay focused on that rather than be negative.

You have those dates coming up at Disjecta in Portland?

Yeah. That's really exciting for us. We've come up with a shadow performance with our friends who have a puppet collective that's really good. They are super talented and they made a video for us called "Lil Taste." Jason [Thibodeaux] and Sarah [Frechette] work in a studio in Portland called Laika. It's an animation studio and they make a bunch of films. So, basically, we get the best of the best from that amazing institution. They all want to chip in and work on fun projects and Jason and Sarah are great at orchestrating the best miniature painter to make a miniature drum set. Then we have scene painters to make a brick wall for us. They're completely incredible.

Last September we did a performance for the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. It was a shadow show, but we only got to perform it one night, but it got better. After that night, we kept working on it, so we want to re-stage it so it's four nights. It's exciting with a short film with a live soundtrack. We're lit up as we perform. They transform us into wolves and other amazing tricks, because we're behind a white screen, and they can project our shadows and do some really cool stuff with what you're able to see.

They use a flashlight as a film camera, basically. They're really talented and cutting edge. We're performing the music live and we worked with them on developing a visual storyline. They definitely have input on which music goes in from our body of our work and talk about what would work and what wouldn't.

Do you feel that performance is connected in some way to Wayang?

I know Jason and Sarah are both students of a lot of styles. We met them because they were working on a piece we did called "Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty" and the puppeteer was Phillip Huber, who did Being John Malkovich and all this amazing stuff. So they were studying under him about how to do marionettes better. I know that shadow puppetry is something Sarah excels in. I wouldn't say it's directly related but it's certainly influenced by more ancient shadow shows.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.