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Kim Gordon and Raymond Pettibon Are Fucking Depressing

I went to a celebration for the release of <em>To Wit</em>, a book of art by Raymond Pettibon, where he talked with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon about his work. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a total snoozefest.

So happy to be here. Thanks for coming. 

Oof. I’m sitting at a bar right now as I type this, trying to think of how exactly to describe the event that I just witnessed at Strand Book Store near Union Square. It was a celebration for the release of To Wit, a book documenting works created by artist Raymond Pettibon last year during a month-long tenure in which he utilized David Zwirner Gallery as his studio.

VICE readers are likely familiar with Pettibon—he’s the creator of the Black Flag bars logo, an image appropriated a million times on Tumblr, tattooed on thousands of individuals, and emblazoned on T-shirts that signify the purchaser’s ostensible anti-establishment tendencies. While the logo’s ubiquity at present makes seeing it somewhat tiresome, it’s still a great piece of design, and Pettibon is a great fucking artist. His output is prolific, at times provocative, and he’s managed to become a blue-chip art-world star by drawing images that seem better suited to a junior high school student’s notebook than the walls of a cavernous Chelsea gallery.

The event featured equally cool Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth fame. The Strand billed the event as a conversation between Pettibon and Gordon, followed by the opportunity for audience questions and a book signing. Last week, I’d seen the Strand tweet at Animal New York, asking if they’d like to come to the event to give it some press. Half-jokingly, I joined the conversation.

I ended up in touch with somebody at the Strand, and they offered me a complimentary pass to the talk (attendance required purchasing a $20 Strand gift card, or a copy of To Wit). Needless to say, I was pretty excited about the prospect. While I’m not exactly a huge Sonic Youth fan by any stretch of the imagination, I have a great deal of respect for their existence and impact. Kim Gordon is a great writer to boot. And I really love Pettibon’s art, so I was eager to attend and get to act all dickish to the ticket taker when I arrived and said, “What’s up, Chauncey? I’m with VICE.” The ticket taker was actually super nice, though, so I just told him my name politely, and he smiled and welcomed me inside. Bookstores are pretty cordial places. 

Bae. 

I located a seat behind a youngish couple who’d brought along their baby. The baby was cute enough, but she kept staring at me as the crowd murmured in the minutes leading up to the talk. At one point, the baby’s pacifier dropped out of her mouth, and I picked it up and handed it to her mom. The fact that I was assisting a baby at a Raymond Pettibon and Kim Gordon talk gave me serious giggles, and I suddenly wondered if there existed Black Flag baby clothes. The answer is yes:

Look at the URL.

A couple of minutes later, Pettibon and Gordon emerged and took their seats atop a small stage, and the event coordinator from the Strand began her introduction. She gave us a paragraph-length background on both, which seemed peculiar to me, since we’d all come specifically for them. Following this, Gordon began asking Pettibon a series of questions.

I am struggling to figure out how to describe the atmosphere. I’ll be completely straightforward with you: I was really, really excited to see this. Before this, I’ve never had the opportunity to see Pettibon or Gordon in person in any capacity. Maybe I’d built up both as cultural producers too much in my head, but within a minute of their conversation beginning, I was categorically bummed. It was, objectively, completely awkward and really, painfully boring. Gordon’s questions and observations were beyond banal. A few highlights:

–Was the Black Flag bars logo commissioned?

–Are the bars a bar code?

–What was it like making work in David Zwirner Gallery?

–Do you want to do more of that?

–This work has more references to yourself.

–Do you question how people will take you putting yourself in the work?

–I could see your ideal audience as being yourself.

I mean, what the fuck. Gordon has participated in probably hundreds of interviews over the years on the receiving end of questions, and with Sonic Youth’s infamously smarmy attitude toward the press, you’d think that she’d have a significantly stronger idea of what constitutes interesting talking points.

But Gordon’s not entirely to blame. Pettibon seemed nonplussed at best to even be there at all. His responses were slow, disengaged, and seemed simultaneously forced and rehearsed. Perhaps the only highlight was when Gordon asked if the Black Flag logo was supposed to represent a bar code and Pettibon replied, “No. They didn’t even have bar codes back then.” Gordon immediately responded, “Yes, they did, Raymond; I checked.” It was the singular moment of comic relief in an otherwise agonizing 20-minute conversation. I didn’t know that 20 minutes could feel that long. My morning commute from BedStuy to the East Village is about that long, and it generally seems like it goes by pretty quickly. Maybe that’s because I listen to the Mars Volta and that’s only like one and a half songs. 

It’s not really worth recounting much more of the conversation between the two of them. They expressed mutual admiration and respect for each other as artists, and yet it seemed like they’d either never met before or had never seen a single thing the other had made once in their life. It’s hard to discern whether their conversation or the audience Q&A was more painful.

A well-meaning and very earnest young woman directed the first question at Gordon. She praised Gordon’s character, then asked how she herself could remain courageous at her school when she was constantly being made the object of fun for her height and her interest in what her peers perceived as dorky extracurriculars. Apparently, this girl is a bass player, and the dickheads at her school tease her constantly. Gordon responded, “Well, I work from fear.” Then she and Pettibon went on some bullshit tangent about how it’s easier to perform or make art for an audience of thousands rather than playing a show for 15 people or talking about your work with your peers. In terms of efficacy for this young girl, who probably just asked the most terrifying question of her life to a major idol of hers, I imagine the response was opaque and less than helpful.

The second audience question was directed at Pettibon, asking him what he hoped that his work accomplished both socially and for himself as the author. I’m paraphrasing based on my notes here, but he basically said, “It’s made to communicate with people… I do appreciate having an audience, but I can’t make art for just one person… I write to the past and also the future.”

What the fuck does that even mean?

Then, a man close to Pettibon’s age, about 60, asked the third and final question, prefacing it by saying that he knew it was intensely personal, and maybe even inappropriate. He asked what exactly had happened between Pettibon and Greg Ginn, his older brother, who founded both Black Flag and SST Records. For context, Ginn and Pettibon are more or less estranged. 

This was actually the only real moment of the entire 30-minute event. Pettibon seemed visibly affected by the query, and while I might be projecting, it almost looked like he was going to cry a couple of times during his response. He essentially communicated that he and his brother were the best of friends for a long time, but that eventually Ginn became so delusional and paranoid that he cut himself off from all of those around him, friends and family included. He choked up a bit as he said that if Ginn walked through the door at that moment, despite their shitty and tumultuous past, all would be forgiven, because he loves him. The situation between him and his brother has been a “pox” on his and his family’s life, and he said he empathized far more with Ginn that the legions of followers, groupies, and yes men that surrounded and enabled him, only to later be baffled as to why he’d turned on them too.

For a brief moment, the event had a real resonance and seemed to actually be amounting to an experience worth having. Then, despite the fact that Pettibon had answered his question in a painfully sincere and transparent fashion, the guy who’d asked the question said: “Thanks. I asked you a really personal question because of a situation in my own life.”

Jesus Fucking Christ, dude. There’s a really neat thing called therapy where somebody actually consents to helping you with your personal bullshit. 

Strand employees announced that everyone should remain seated, and they’d call up individual rows to get their copies of To Wit signed. I gathered my things and walked outside into the rain. I didn’t feel upset or even disappointed, just depressed. People are the worst. 

Sean J Patrick Carney is a concrete comedian, visual artist, and writer based in Brooklyn. He is the founder and director of Social Malpractice Publishing and, since 2012, has been a member of GWC Investigators, a collaborative paranormal research team. Carney has taught at Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Virginia Commonwealth University, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, and New York University. Follow him on Twitter, here.