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Interview: TR Ericsson on Crackle & Drag and his Zine Series

Interview TR Ericsson on Crackle & Drag and his Zine Series Since last year’s publication of the exhibition catalog Crackle & Drag, TR Ericsson has garnered a lot of attention, both as an artist and as a presence within the field of photobooks. Crackle & Drag was shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Photobook Awards in the category of catalog, which went a long way to put him in the public eye and draw people to the works featured in that retrospective publication.

Crackle & DragBy TR Ericsson
The Cleveland Museum of Art, 2015.
Since last year’s publication of the exhibition catalog Crackle & Drag, TR Ericsson has garnered a lot of attention, both as an artist and as a presence within the field of photobooks. Crackle & Drag was shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Photobook Awards in the category of catalog, which went a long way to put him in the public eye and draw people to the works featured in that retrospective publication.

A series of particular interest featured in the Crackle & Drag catalog is the zine collection that shares its name. Numbering a total of 150 individual issues, the only complete set (an edition of 10) was sold to museums; currently the Museum of Art Cleveland and MoMa are happy owners of this impressive collection.

I’ve spent some time talking with Ericsson and over the course of our talks we decided to offer some of those zines again and came up with a photo-eye exclusive series that features five collections, 61 issues total. The titles in photo-eye’s zine series are: Father: 1918-1957Youth: 1958-1968Marriage: 1969-1980Divorce: 1981-1987 and Loneliness, Addiction and Death: 1988-2003. The focus of photo-eye’s exclusive selection is intensely photographic and it is one that Ericsson and myself curated with a photobook audience in mind.

Once we’d completed the curation and started to promote the series we decided to talk again, to take an assessment and ask ourselves, what does the series mean, how did it come about and, perhaps most importantly, how are the zines fundamental to understanding Ericsson and his work? The following is a transcript of that conversation.—Christopher J Johnson

 from Crackle & Drag by TR Ericsson
Christopher Johnson:     You did Crackle & Drag the monograph for the Ohio Museum — published in part through Yale. That’s a museum exhibition catalogue in a lot of ways; do you feel like it makes an adequate sampler of the zine collection Crackle & Drag?

TR Ericsson:     No, because it’s so much material there. The purpose of the museum monograph, which was interesting and innovative for them and maybe even generally speaking innovative, was to be a hybrid artist book/monograph. Like any normal monograph there’s going to be a sampling of works that are going to be in the show or that the artist has done, but where the artist book part came in was the concept was entirely mine and I designed conceptually most of it. The designer at the museum, with 25 years of experience and tons of finesse, was able to put the text in order and the pages in order but I was surprised how little he changed my initial concept. The freedom there was incredible. But the idea was to provide these short over-views of various bodies of work and how they all link together. With each body of work there’s so many more works, whether it was the Étant Donnés or the Narcissus or the zines, they were all just sort of hinted at to link to this larger body of work that had been going on in the years since my mother passed away. So all of it, though thorough, is still partial, I would say. And certainly that’s the case with the zines.

CJ:     Talking about the zines themselves rather than the monograph form, when was the earliest one you made in your family history series?

TRE:     I can’t emphasis the importance of the zines enough because they really were the– someone used the language “R and D” or research and development — they really were that for the entire project. I would say that the whole thing began around 2011 as I was just finishing up with this Étant Donnés series. I was so involved with Duchamp — it was literally like a black hole I slipped into for about two years or maybe three years, and as happens often, creatively, I was really feeling directionless, and that’s not a familiar feeling to me — I can’t stand it. As I was looking over my work, my life, what’s the next step, I was feeling this tugging that I had felt for years and years that there’s more of a story to tell or I hadn’t told it all or there was all this material of mine that I’d only sort of hinted at in other bodies of work. I had thought about it a lot but it dawned on me that I’d never really put this out there in any kind of complete way. As often with me, the book form is such a great way to start doing that because it’s low cost, there’s no stakes, if you make the book and develop something and you don’t like it, well, no one knows, and you don’t care. It’s not a tremendous amount of time or resources.

from Étant Donnés 2° by TR Ericsson

I think as I was starting to put things together, I was moving from Ohio to New York. I spent two years in Ohio while my daughter was a baby. It was a big deal for me because I’d been in New York my whole adult life and being back in Ohio was pretty weird but pretty gratifying. I was leaving again to come back to New York and I was going into a smaller space, we were leaving our home even though we’ve still kept it, but the thing I did was I thought, well, let me literally photograph my entire archive or try to consolidate my personal archive so that I can bring it with me and then in lieu of a studio which I didn’t have at the time here in New York, I would be able to really delve into that. I remember even taking objects and photographing them all in the driveway, so by the time I got to New York in late 2011, I had consolidated the entirety of what became the Crackle & Drag archive into binders and digital photographs and everything, and didn’t have an exact direction I was going in. I think I started by 2012 making the zines as a way to respond. I was really overwhelmed by the material, so how could I consolidate that material into some kind of form? The zines seemed the best way to do it because each little zine would tell as specific cut of the story and move through time or remain somewhat chaotic. There was an unpretentiousness to the zine format.

Covers of zines by TR Ericsson
As I was doing that, remarkably, Barbara Tannenbaum of the Cleveland Museum of Art was newly employed there and in a very innovative way was putting on a show of photobooks that all were print on demand, which I think was unheard of. She really did something special and innovative. She got in touch with me. I’d made 50 zines because I’d planned that there’d be three volumes to the zines, each being 50 with a total of 150. Still that material was overwhelming me. The characters that I saw coming up were really my mother, her father and me, and I thought maybe that’d be how I do it — it’d be this trilogy of packs of 50 zines and that’ll be it. So I made the first 50 and those were exhibited at the Cleveland Museum of Art and really were engaged more around my mother’s story.

As I started moving forward with it that 50-50-50 thing was not working either. My mother was growing as the lynch pin of the entire story so I decided, let’s make the 150 all of a set, really all focusing on her with everyone else as lesser characters. I got going on that for the next year or so, but it really was a titanic, epic effort! It’s funny, because in the end it is what it is, there’s 150 of these little zines and they’re so consolidated as to be almost somewhat like— I don’t know quite how appreciated the ambition that was in that project— some of it is entirely personal, it was really a lot to go through personally, obviously. I had an illness once I finished the whole thing; I think it was some kind of stress-related thing. It was so hard to put that much information into these simplified slices and hold it all together in my mind, but I think that’s one of the most successful aspects of the project, really.

CJ:     You say when you were done this illness came on; do you think there’s a possibility it was in conjunction with a sense of loss or completion leading to that feeling? Like, “Now what do I do?”

TRE:     I think it was more just the effort itself because — you know, this will sound really compulsive — I was making zines at a rate of maybe 3, 4, 5 in a week. The pace was unbelievable. And the reason for the pacing, it wasn’t a deadline I was trying to catch up to – I couldn’t stand it anymore, which was one reason for the pacing, but I think the more important reason was I had to move that fast to keep the arc in my mind somehow. Moving fast kept simplicity on board. But I was making these things, maybe 3 at least, but 4 or 5 — almost one a day, and I would check them off each day and week as I did it and it was about a 2 month period or more that I was working at that kind of relentless pace and it was like as soon as I hit the end of it I crashed. I had this kind of attack. It was really bizarre. I think it was entirely stress related. I was just so at the edge with that project. I was working literally from the second I got up into the night, day after day after day after day for months. I think I was even just inspired by the fact that I was doing it and getting at a conclusion. I couldn’t believe it. I just wanted to see it conclude.

Thirst Magazine no. 1, 2001
CJ:     When was Thirst Magazine? That seems to have been earlier.

TRE:     It was much earlier. As silly as this may sound, the turning of the century meant something to me. It meant something to everybody but this idea that we were going into this new century – I wanted that to mean something and that’s where the magazine started. The idea was to be the first work I did in this twenty-first century. I did the first issue, which had my mother on the cover of it, and originally it was supposed to be an art and culture review where I would just work with friends and other people. I was probably at the turn of the century still in my late twenties. I don’t think anyone had died yet either in the rapid way they were about to, but it was getting really close. I think my grandmother had died and I dedicated that first issue to her. 

That first issue was kind of an enthusiastic mess. I had an interest in the history of art magazines from Francis Picabia, Duchamp and Blind Man and Wrong Wrong and all that Dada stuff was inspiring to me. So I thought, “Hey, I’m making a magazine.” I really had no idea what an artist book was or really what a photobook was, per se, but what that magazine quickly morphed into was an artist book project more than a magazine and got increasingly eccentric. From the first issue, once I included some people in it, I realized that no one was really jumping on board. It was just like, “Hey, cool, put my stuff in your magazine,” but I wasn’t really able to create a community around it. Whether that was my failing or my friends, who knows, or just being young. By the second issue I just decided, well, I’ll do my thing here with this magazine format and that issue did become pretty straightforward, just a selection of archived images from what now has become Crackle & Drag.

The idea for Thirst though was that I was also young enough to realize and see that a lot of my more useful ideas were just that, useful, and you grow out of things and I wanted to come up with a concept that I didn’t think I’d grow out of, that I could really start building on and the one concept I knew would remain a constant with my life or all our lives was desire. That’s where Thirst came from. Whether you’re citing the Tantalus myth or there’s an obscure play by Eugene O’Neil (this is referenced in the Yale book), the idea was that with each new issue I would respond to what was going on in my life. What was weird about that was I had no idea the kind of A-bomb that was about to go off in my life. There’s always been a bit of clairvoyance, as crazy as that sounds, to myself and my work, an almost awareness of a future coming. I can’t explain it but it’s happened to me so many times I perceive it as a fact rather than as a mystic comment. Thirst was like that. Like any young person I was torqued up about my life or career or asking those kind of questions, reading a lot of philosophy — all of that was going into Thirst in a very fragmented, esoteric way that anyone looking at it, even when I look back on it, what the hell would anyone have known I was doing here? It was really just a way to kind of find myself, I think, and I used that form to do it. I think this is anecdotal but Shakespeare wrote a sonnet in his youth that you can hinge in theme everything that he ever did in maturity. I don’t know if that’s true but anecdotally it’s an interesting point creatively because I think that Thirst has seeds in there in a very useful chaotic underdeveloped way that has proven to become everything that I’m dealing with moving forward. The concept of a single individual, philosophy, autobiography, it’s all in there — literature, narrative, the use of photography, found photography, all that stuff was there. Some of the issues were more complex than others but it certainly was the progenitor of everything. It’s why I started the monograph with it. 

from Youth: 1958-1968 by TR Ericsson

CJ:     You mentioned Eugene O'Neill and also have several times outside of this interview mentioned Kierkegaard. One notable thing about both of those authors is how prolific they were. You made the comment earlier about while you were working on this project, that it was something like the opposite of ADHD, which I would say is probably fastidiousness. Do you think that they have leant anything to your ability, desire to be as prolific as you are?

TRE:     I've never thought about the prolific side of it. In fact, I often think of myself almost the opposite way. I mean, there's no way to not see the zines as prolific, for sure, but I'm such a violent editor often that so much what I do gets thrown out. It's complicated. Certainly, the effort is prolific. It's just that I do get rid of a lot of things.

To the Kierkegaard point, what's so interesting about him, he created a host of pseudonyms, like totally fictional realities and fictional characters to outline a huge chunk of his philosophy, which he referred to as his aesthetic works. His authorship, it's like a box in a box in a box in a box, and that is a huge influence on me. Other artists I like, like Duchamp or Marcel Broodthaers, these are also artists that completely embrace the complexity and ambiguity of human experience in any number of ways that they do it, but Kierkegaard definitely created such a labyrinth.

There was a disarming intimacy to Kierkegaard that I can recall in numerous instances, where you're reading him and getting very frustrated and lost. It is creepy almost. Out of nowhere, he'll in the text say, "Are you still reading? Are you still following me? I apologize for the complexity. Are you still with me?" Like this bizarre intimacy that's so disarming and powerful, and he does it all the time throughout his books.

from Youth: 1958-1968 by TR Ericsson

I've also had incredible experiences on literally public transportation, subways and trains, where people would see me reading a Kierkegaard book, not often, but more than half a dozen times, and tell me, "I know that author," and tell me some significant moment they had with him. All of this really does embed itself very tightly within my work. I do think my ideal viewer is a more intimate individual, someone who just does kind of respond to it. It really seeks that lone individual that just gets something out of it. I see this again and again.

I had, after the museum show, dozens of emails from these kind of individuals getting in touch with me in the most meaningful, intimate way to say what the work did to them or for them. I'm really proud of that. It's a little dysfunctional professionally, but spiritually or creatively or whatever you want to say, it's something I'm really pleased about.

CJ:     No, I would think it's one of the more rewarding things.

Your grandfather's military-service pictures, the personal correspondence or letters, the journal, how did you come into possession of that? Is that something your mother had held onto and you had encountered time and time again as a child, or was it something you just suddenly discovered? 

TRE:     The first thing that comes to mind is my grandmother's house, my mother's mother. She was definitely the most sedentary and immobile character in my life because everyone was kind of flying all over the place. My grandfather was traveling all the time, a very worldly man, but she never went anywhere. They bought a house when they were in their 20s and starting a family, and she died while still living there. The house became this kind of repository of time. What I remember most clearly is she had a vanity with drawers that wasn't really used as a vanity. In all of those drawers were cigar boxes filled with these photographs. As a kid, I was always kind of looking through them. I always tell this humorous story where I came across this particularly grim image of my mother and her father. They just looked so miserable. I looked at the date, which was '58 or '59. I don't remember. I yelled downstairs to my grandmother and said, "Hey, what year did you and grandpa get divorced?" It was that year. I just remember chuckling to myself, "Yeah, that makes sense."

from Father: 1918-1957 by TR Ericsson

She had a bulk of that stuff, and I remember her always saying, "Oh, I'm going to put those in albums someday," and she never did. She died in 1999, and that would have been the first moment where I was picking those all up and taking them for my own. It was really a hodgepodge of photo albums that my mother would have kept more organized than my grandmother. Just dresser drawers filled with photographs. Then it was kind of a disaster in my grandfather's case. He was a hoarder type of his generation. He had a bookstore. He had done flea markets, and his shop had once been an antique shop. All of it intermingled with all his personal stuff. He'd have anything from a cow's hairball next to a saw, next to a picture of him in World War II, next to a tropical-island glass. I mean, it was just chaos, every inch of the place. I just preserved what I could, but so much was lost, even though I was able to get my hands on everything I did.

from Marriage: 1969-1980 by TR Ericsson
CJ:     Given your grandfather, your grandmother, your uncle, everyone else who comes up in these zines, your mother seems like the initial point. Everything else, whether working forward in time or backward in time, is coming from the pinpoint of her. At what point did the investigation of family become the predominant feature? Was it with your mother's death? The other reason I ask this question is because we talked about Thirst Magazine, which seems to be more of an investigation of you yourself and your development. Then with your mother's death, it shifts to her and your family history.

TRE:     You're spot on with everything you're saying. The question is sort of fantastic, but my mind goes so many directions. One odd thing I'll remark on that I still can't totally get my mind around. What would be the natural thing for people to talk about when engaging Crackle and Drag? This word family, which you've now used a dozen times in this conversation already. It's the most logical thing you might begin talking about, "So this is your family."

I'm telling you, as crazy as it sounds, up until last year, when I was working with anyone professionally, I was always telling them, "Could you please not use that word? I'm not interested in that word family. I don't know why we're using that." I had to finally just accept it a year ago and say, "I'm just crazy. I have to say family. It is what it is." That I found the word so problematic was just that— I don't mean this to sound as awful as it sounds, but I have no interest in family. I, like many of us, just don't care. It's not like I have some kind of glowing memories of Easter egg hunts or anything like that.

My family was incredibly dysfunctional, as many families are. Maybe I go off a little bit further than some and not as far as others, whatever, but what was more meaningful to me was this odd engagement I had with three people, who were my mother and my grandparents. I mean, we were together in my childhood constantly. They were just always around me, or I was around them. It was very intense. They were very intense and eccentric people, and I was interested in them. I think it's possible I could have had another mother — I'm being fantastical here — but it’s theoretically possible I could have had another mother and set of grandparents that just didn't interest me at all. 

My father's side, as cool as it sounds, I have no interest in them. You won't see a mention of any of them, and a couple of them were pretty darned interesting. A lot of them were artists actually, but I haven't touched on that at all. It's just they were more hokey to me, less charming. The thing I thought was so compelling about my mother and grandparents is, if I were going to be really kind of crude, there was just no bullshit to them. They really had kind of a blunt way of putting themselves forward, whereas a lot of people, maybe you're not that nice really, but you act nice because you're supposed to.

from Divorce: 1981-1987 by TR Ericsson

My mother's side of the family, if they thought something was awful, they just told you it was awful. That's not nice, and it wasn't enjoyable, but there was a trueness to them and a charm or something that was just hard to get my mind around. Of course, they inhabit me, as does my father. The short rap on my father is that he can't reveal himself, and it drives me nuts. He comes off one way, but you just know he's another way. That was the exact opposite of my mother's family. I think there's a push and pull in me in those two poles, that there's something about even revealing the details of my mother's family and all of its banality and even grotesquerie that feels honest, like a reveal is happening, and that in that reveal you engage the world and yourself in an authentic way that I think is more ... I don't even know how to phrase it. It's more compelling. It's more true, all of the good things you could imagine.

1988-2003 by TR Ericsson
I think what was so tremendous about my mother's death and the difference in her was her powerful ability to engage others, care about others, dial into other people. There's so many instances of that. She was just gutsy on an existential level like you can't imagine and inappropriate and crazy and all that stuff. Everyone who knew her then, all the friends I knew in high school, they came to her funeral. They still talk to me today, and they say, "I'll never forget your mother and the way she would bring me into her home and the way she'd listen to me and the way she'd care about me." She did this with everyone from the worst derelict barfly in our small town to the mailman to any family member. Her ability to platform another human being — and of course, you could imagine how much she did that for me — it was overwhelming at times and also frankly I didn't appreciate it. I just took it for granted. That was another thing I think that brought something awake in me, where I began to want to think about her. 

It's really been interesting to me to engage with the public with my work; it's so funny the reception you get. Some people just can't tolerate this kind of level of self-investigation. They're more interested in like an Ellsworth Kelly. They go to art for beauty, for something sexy, something that lifts them out of their trap. That's all valid. Then I come along, and it's like, "Jesus, don't drag me into this kind of shit. I've got my family. You've got your family."

Then there are some people who I think are so compelled by their own families, they don't need to be compelled by mine. Then you have other people who are like, "My God. I've never even thought of someone addressing what you're addressing this way. You're formulating things for me that have tortured me for years. Thank you." I think also the deep philosophical underpinnings of it all and even literary underpinnings of it all often get taken for granted because it's assumed, "All right, so you've got a bug up your ass about your family. Ok. I don't know what your problem is," and people won't go that extra step.

from Marriage: 1969-1980 by TR Ericsson
CJ:     Given your zines, if you were encountering a stranger or an art critic who had never encountered your work before, what would you say is their significant driving factor?

TRE:     I would simply say it’s the world viewed through the lens of a single woman, an unremarkable woman to some extent, from a worldly prospect. Her story becomes, to me, an almost socio-political point; we need to stop neglecting what is so sacred and local to us and not move past it all the time. I found most people would say that the work was about death or the work was about addiction and loss and all this, and someone finally said, "Really, it's about love."

I will just say that. I learned a kind of love both through my mother and through losing her and even through the daughter I now have who really does drive me, is what motivates me, that there is this love, and it's not easy. It's not just “I love you” or “I'm in love” or any of that crap. It's actually love of another and the kind of sacrifice engaged in that kind of love and the kind of loyalty and commitment engaged in all that.

View the photo-eye exclusive Crackle & Drag Zine Series:
Father: 1918-1957
Youth: 1958-1968
Marriage: 1969-1980
Divorce: 1981-1987
Loneliness, Addiction and Death: 1988-2003

View all titles by TR Ericsson