Brigitte Nicole: How did the conception of BOMB Magazine begin?
Betsy Sussler: It was the late 70s/early 80s, and people were working together. And when I say “people,” I mean musicians, and theater directors, and painters. It was more of a social collaborative situation where people were working together all the time. The end result was important, of course, but what was really important was the conversation taking place around the creation of the artworks—whatever they were: whether they were plays, whether they were performances, or installations, or films.
BN: In the original BOMB issues, there was a lot of content rotating around the filmmaker, and you were filmmaker at the time. Are you still?
BS: I started out making very underground films and acting and directing plays, so I was very much from a storytelling background. I said at this dinner table, “Wouldn’t it be a great idea if we started a magazine where we could talk about the work the way we talk about it among ourselves when we are creating it?”—because that is very distinct from the way a critic looks at it. And everyone said, “Oh yes, great idea!” And we honestly did not think BOMB would last more than two to three years; we thought it would just be this marvelously-magical effervescent thing that would, you know, happen and bumble for awhile and then just disappear. So, Sarah Charlesworth, the artist, was one of the first contributing editors; Michael McClard, another wonderful artist who is not as well-known; Glenn O’Brien, I think, was in on the first meetings; Liza Bear, who had a magazine called Avalanche, which is historically famous, and was also about delivering the artist’s voice, which was very much what we wanted to do. And then we talked about it for a year, really, on street corners, at more dinner parties, over breakfast—what we wanted this magazine to be. And finally we just did it. We all entered the equations as novices, relatively naïve. Even though Glenn (O'Brien) had been a managing editor at Interview and Liza (Bear) had Avalanche, they were artist projects, enterprises; they weren’t businesses so to speak.
BN: Was there anything specific at the time that led up to BOMB's format of the artist-to-artist interview and its initial sort of shaping as a backlash against the art critic?
BS: You know, people think it was a revolt against the critics, but I think the critic has a perfectly valid place in the scheme of things. So, we never considered it a revolt against the critic as much as we wanted to talk about the work in the way we thought it should be talked about—in terms of its creative possibility—and that is an entirely different thing. We all had read our Walter Benjamin, we had great respect for theory, theoreticians, and certain critics. But then there were art journalists, and that was a very impoverished area, in terms of the writing, and we wanted to change that. There was this wonderful new thing called the New Cinema that James Nares, Becky Johnston, and Eric Mitchell started, and we were very much involved in that. The theater group I was in, Nightshift, put up one of our videos there. Also, Collab was going on at the time, and they helped support BOMB, so there was a lot of interaction. I was in a Gary Indiana play and literally moving a painting around the stage because that was the set, you know, that was the feeling back then! It was really exciting and open, and I guess the word I’ve been looking for is “commerce.” The idea of commerce was distinct and separate from the idea of making a work of art, and that, in a way, was wonderfully naïve.
BN: The magazine's name has been said to be derived from Wyndham Lewis's BLAST magazine that originated in 1914, bringing writings from Ezra Pound, and is now recognized as a significant staple in the Modernist movement. What specifically about BLAST did you and the other originators of BOMB resonate with and incorporate into your own publication?
BS: What we really liked about it was, as the first 20th century artists and writers publication, everybody who was a contributing editor was also a practicing novelist or visual artist, and that is what we were bringing to the table, and that is what we decided was Bomb’s only rule: anyone who participated in it had to be a practitioner. In Nightshift, which had its genesis in Melbourne, Australia, my then-husband was an actor and a director, and he started this group called the Australian Performing Group. When they started in the 60s, everyone involved had to participate as an actor in the production of the play: so, the director had to act, the playwright had to act, because how else could you know how to create a play if you didn’t know how to deliver the words, and how to deal with the text? That was something I brought to BOMB that I think has made it quite distinct; I really do think of the interviews as one-act or three-act plays. It would be dialectic, and the dialectic would be between artists. Say, Anne Waldman did this beautiful interview with Pat Steir, and Anne just brought the armature of a poet to the wonderfully-inbred language of a painter, and it spread out into this beautiful conversation. I don’t know how else to explain it, but that’s how it worked.
BN: How do you think BOMB's use of the artist-to-artist interview has evolved?
BS: Well we’ve evolved it, because we have gotten so much better at it, and now it's a real process. We record the interview, of course, we transcribe it, and then we use that transcription as the jumping point, and we ask the artists to elaborate on certain ideas that we think are interesting and perhaps hadn’t been quite developed in the conversation. So, we just use it as a starting point for the conversation; it’s not to say it goes through an unrecognizable transformation, but it does become text, and it does get developed as much as a film would. When we started, the artist’s word was not sacrosanct, and it wasn’t even that respected. But now this has become a part of the academy, everybody does it now. I don’t think everybody does it as well as we do, because we have thirty years of experience and a very particular vision, and I don’t think one can replicate another’s vision.
BN: BOMB has played a huge role in the documentation of artists as we can see both in its archives and in Columbia University's acquisition of the first quarter of BOMB by its Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. What exactly makes up the archives at Columbia?
BS: It’s amazing because we know all of those papers are protected now, and it was really scary, because they were all under my desk, I think, during 9/11, and we were not that far from the site of impact, and that’s when I thought, “Oh my gosh, this has to happen! The sum total of the parts is huge, it’s historically important.” They (Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library) have all of the papers. For instance, up online we have digitized all the interviews we have done since 1981, so that is a virtual library that is free and available to the public-at-large, and you can go and read any BOMB and all of the BOMB interviews, except, of course, the current ones that are available in the magazine. But the papers—and what I mean by that are the audiotapes, all of the transformations, all of the different edits, the different drafts, all of the letters, the emails, the supplementary material, all of that paper, the objects—are at Columbia. It’s fun; it’s like a mile of boxes, basically, but they are very well organized.
BN: Going back to Wyndham Lewis's BLAST and their Vortisitic manifesto listing items to BLESSED or BLASTED, and the coming together of this group of artists together manifesting their beliefs, was there any initial manifesto seen with BOMB or even general artistic consensus, in regards to the first group of artists who started BOMB?
BS: We have a mandate, but I don't really consider it a manifesto. One of the things I pride BOMB on is we have such a panoply of voices, and many of them wouldn’t agree, so we try not to have an umbrella, and within the interviews themselves, depending on the people involved, you might very well find a manifesto, but not by the organization itself. That would be rather against what we are trying to do, in giving people the freedom to express themselves.
BN: Lastly, we are currently stocking BOMB No. 111/Spring 2010. Could you give us a preview of what readers should be expecting in this issue?
BS: I absolutely love that issue, and I love all of them. I think there is a beautiful, touching interview with Edgar Arceneaux, Charles Gaines, and Rick Lowe. They are talking about bringing their artistic practice to social situations, to housing in Watts, and housing in Houston, and Project Row Houses, and what that means for an artist to be publicly and politically engaged, and how that affects their studio practice. I thought that was a very moving interview. And then there's a wonderfully-rollicking, hysterical interview with Sam Lipsyte, who is a great novelist, with another great novelist, Christopher Sorrentino. And the interview with Carlos Reygadas, who is not know here, but is the most famous Mexican filmmaker. And there is a reason for it: he is just adored in Mexico, and the interview with him is just so smart. It is such a pleasure to read his thoughts. So, there are a lot of good interviews in [No. 111], but those are three I would single out.