Monday, May 19, 2014

Sarah Minor on Visual Essayists: Installation Two with Kristen Radtke

As a continuation of the conversation I'm having with essayists about visual essays and the way their multimedia thinking functions (or doesn't), I present to you a conversation with Kristen Radtke

S: What do you think motivates you to include graphics in your writing? At what point in your process does a text begin to involve other media? Or is it the reverse?

K: Its different with every project. Im generally most satisfied with the results when I work back and forth between text and image, composing them in conjunction with one another rather than creating a prose script and crafting images to follow. Ive definitely made work that way, especially when Im doing animation and video. But on paper, I have the most fun when I move back and forth between mediums. It helps me utilize them both as fully as I can.

S: In writing workshops, we commonly describe successful visual essays as those that teach their reader how the form and content will work early on, and abide by these rules of play for the duration of the piece (except for an important slight shift). Do you think your work functions in this way?

K: I hope so. I think this is something every piece of art needs to do, whether its prose, visual, or a combination of the two. It needs to teach its audience how to pay attention without overpowering the audiences ability to interact and interpret on their own. Im not utilizing an unfamiliar formI use panels, word bubbles, and captions that anyone who has ever read a comic book, or even a comic strip in their Sunday paper, should know how to read. The struggle comes in, I think, with my subject matter, which is often more about place than people, and more ruminative than narrative. Comics generally count on events and characters to bring readers through a story. My graphic essays sometime go five or six pages without a single human figure. But its the same issue that we tackle when writing prose that might be digressive, associative, and non-narrative. The challenges are similar.

S: Do you have a word, or a way to describe what is going on between the images and the narrative voice in Sans Soleil as well as in your graphic essay about Markers movie? If not yet, might you invent a new term? For me, the work of your images seems about visually recreating an idea or experience. You address this directly on ED, but Im wondering what you think the exact work of juxtaposition is here? Is it drawing attention to the hand behind the pairing language and image texts as much as movies?

K: I certainly try to make my drawings explorations of ideas and experiences. Some of them are definitely representational, and I use the images rather than the prose to convey narrative back-story and context. Images have their own voices just as prose does, and maybe the space between the two when theyre put together is where art can happen. I suppose you could call it braiding, but Im not exactly sure if thats what youre driving at. Sometimes an image serves a narrative function while the prose its coupled with conveys some essential bit of exposition that lays the groundwork for whats to come. Sometimes image sets a mood while the prose explores a narrative. I like to approach each panel on its own terms to see how I can get the elements to work together.

S: I like thatimage as vessel of mood, or narrative, or voice. I sometimes worry that it takes the art-gesture out of the process to dissect and explain these things but I wonder if you can talk more about or name the various roles of images when paired with text? Youve suggested that in visual/graphic essays the function of images is often the same as that of a sentence or paragraph, and I agree, but images also obviously do the work that language cannot, or maybe just do it better in certain instances. I like thinking that the use of both image and text is as much about what each medium can convey to a reader (description, scene, idea, tone) as how successful that medium is at conveying the thing. Or maybe multimedia work just expands the range of tools we have to communicate with. Orsomething

K: I think we can convey almost anything through almost any form or medium. In this case, I dont see either prose or image as superior to the other. The power of images, perhaps, rests in immediacy. A scene that takes paragraphs to describe can be digested by a reader in seconds when rendered visually. A few years ago I was riding the subway in Tokyo and sat across from this kid reading a graphic novel, turning a page every three or four seconds. I had this sudden rush of dread. As Zadie Smith said of Chris Wares work, it takes him ten years to draw these things and then I read them in a day.There are advantages and disadvantages to every form. 

I hear your concern about dissecting and explaining art, but especially when it comes to the essay, a form all too often misunderstood, I think its essential that we try to contextualize what it is were doing. Historical and contemporary discourse of painting or sculpture hasnt done anything to diminish the artfulness of those mediums. That said, it seems to me that the contemporary essay/nonfiction community has been in a rush to assign names to what it is were doing, perhaps in an effort to clarify a very crowded genre. Have terms like personal essay, creative nonfiction, or lyric essay really done that much to shed light on what these kinds of literature can or should do?

S: So why nonfiction? Do you think that the draw to include visual material within an essay has something to do with the truth-making gestures of CNF?

K: Ive identified as an essayist since college. I took nonfiction classes, I worked as a journalist, and I compulsively read books of essays and thought-driven nonfiction. I like the idea that graphic forms lend themselves particularly well to nonfiction, but the vast majority of the graphic market is and always has been fiction, from comic books to graphic novels. I dont know that genre dictates how and why drawings and images are incorporated, but I try not to think of any of it as an inclusionof visuals. In good graphic novels, essays, memoirs, comics, etc., text and image have to work together. Both have to be so indispensable that one cant function completely without the other.

S: Indispensable seems very right. Its really my bad for using verbs like "include" and "incorporate" to describe these processes in the first place (and probably, too, for claiming visual truths. I was thinking-ish about the document). These words make it seem like the text is this primary body that visual media become additional to or are buttressed by. The impetus behind this project began as a search for the language to describe and understand the craft of mixed media textsbut maybe thats the issue, that Im trying to explain these interactions using language that gets more specific and less flowery than marriageand symbiosis.I think braiding is a term that comes up often because it describes a kind of alternation that allows each medium the stage momentarily. Maybe, as you say, the success of combination is really happening in the brain of the writer and then the reader in the moments between and after image and text. Maybe this is what art means always, but Im still looking for a way to talk about craft that gets us to that place of art-happening, or pushes us away...

K: I think we're all a little nervous about saying the wrong thing. Graphic essay? Graphic nonfiction? Graphic novel? Mixed media essay? Illustrated prose? Comics? Maybe naming just gets in the way. Illuminated manuscripts have been around since 400 AD. There is nothing new about literature that is both graphic and prose, but for whatever reason, it's taken us a while to treat this kind of work seriously. I think literary criticism in America is just a little more conservative than we all care to admit. It can be frustrating, but it needn't be troubling. I do see a lot o f progress and a lot of hope for graphic work--in 2011, Lauren Redniss's extraordinary graphic nonfiction book Radioactive was a finalist for the National Book Award. There's a lot of exceedingly good graphic work out there, and there's a place for it, and that place is growing. It's exciting to work in a genre that still has something to prove. 

S: This is heartening. Do you yourself feel inspired or informed by other makers of visual essays? Are there writers who you feel are doing similar work?

K: Most of books that have been influential to me are prose titles, perhaps because there is just so much more going on in literary nonfiction than in graphic nonfiction. I didnt grow up reading comic books and I dont read fantasy graphic novels, although I have profound admiration for artists in those fields. The graphic writers Ive looked to most are heavy hitters like Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Joe Sacco, and Lauren Redniss. Theyve all made remarkable contributions to graphic nonfiction over the past decade or so. The Undertaking of Lily Chen, a graphic novel by the immensely talented Danica Novgorodoff, came out at the end of March, and I hope everyone pays attention. Paul Madonnas All Over Coffee is truly beautiful. Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine never cease to make me giddy when they undertake new projects. Itd be lovely to hear that my work is somehow in conversation with any of these artists, but Im totally unqualified to make a claim like that. Ill just say I feel lucky that theyre all producing such wonderful work. It no doubt makes the world a richer place.

S: Thanks, Kristen.

Kristen Radtke is a writer and illustrator living in New York. She is the Marketing and Publicity Director for Sarabande Books, has an MFA from the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, and is currently working on a graphic memoir about abandoned places and an anthology of essays from twenty-something perspectives with Lucas Mann. Her graphic work has appeared at Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, and many others. Find her on Twitter @kristenradtke.

Sarah Minor is from the great state of Iowa. She has an MFA from the University of Arizona's Nonfiction Program, and will soon begin pursuit of a PhD at Ohio University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming at Word Riot, in Conjunctions:61, Seneca Review, South Loop Review, and Black Warrior Review. Her Interviews appear here and at She lives in Tucson, where she works at the Poetry Center and picks at a collection of visual essays about liminal spaces. 

 All images by Kristen Radtke. 


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