In the early 1990s, Harry Dodge cofounded Red Dora’s Bearded Lady, a community-based performance space that served as a hub for an emerging DIY literary and arts scene in pre-gentrified San Francisco. Soon after, his buddy film By Hook or by Crook (which he directed with Silas Howard) premiered at Sundance and quickly became a queer cult classic. Along with the film, Dodge’s video work, writing, drawing, and sculpture make up an ongoing investigation into questions about materiality and consciousness—what he has called the “pursuit of the in-between.” (Most recently, his sculptures have been exhibited in solo and group shows, including the New Museum’s 40th-anniversary exhibition “Trigger” in 2017 and ’18.) His new book, My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing, an experimental memoir of sorts, feels like a natural continuation of this long-standing interdisciplinary practice. It is yet another sculpture, with his words and thoughts pushed around as if they were aluminum or clay.
The book not only extends Dodge’s sculptural work but also—insisting that our practices of love must expand beyond the human—situates itself in a long history of philosophers interested in what love means. Loosely structured around five nonlinear vignettes (the decline of Dodge’s father into dementia; Dodge’s rekindling a relationship with his birth mother; his relationship with his sons, Iggy and Lenny; an investigation into AI; and a detailing of the gallery acquisition of his art), My Meteorite defines love in a broad sense, using it as a springboard to examine different types of connections: quantum bonds, family ones, encounters with nature, and even attractions to everyday objects.
While My Meteorite has been called a genre-defying memoir, those words don’t entirely fit this wonderful, inexplicable book. Narrated by what Dodge refers to as “the character of the author,” it uses autobiography to ground itself as a piece of idiosyncratic philosophical inquiry. His main interests—the invisible threads that sew us together, the meaning found in randomness—do not yet have names, allowing My Meteorite to naturally seep across disciplines and letting him jump from Blade Runner to Fred Moten to Prince all in one swoop.
I spoke with Dodge by phone a few days after calls for social distancing had left him holed up with his family in Los Angeles. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Taliah Mancini: It feels somewhat odd to interview you about My Meteorite, because in it you make clear that you are more interested in questions than answers—and you have even expressed distrust of language’s ability to capture indeterminacy.
Harry Dodge: Language is agitating when it fails, which is to say, when it fails to represent exactly—our feelings, our lived experiences. It’s such a profound tool, the promise of it alone can be agitating, and a glob of words often comes sort of wrapped in an equally profound set of expectations. But I also find using language to be super-ecstatic. We know the words may be imperfect. There is no doubt that we lose some specificity in trying to frame or reframe our thoughts, but I think of it as a trade-off. We likely lose precision, but what we gain is a sense of having communicated, changed something. Altogether, I think of it as a kind of loving. And I’m excited by that. I find that when I’m writing, I’m actually much more capable of generating, I guess, more shareable thoughts. For me, writing is fertile, a way of growing things. And those written items are sculptural. They arrive in the world as active—things that take up space, not as privations or failures. In the distant past, I didn’t yet appreciate the positive aspects of what language knits, its features. I’m not like that anymore. Now I’m a logophile, but in certain situations, I felt like the book was some sort of manifest act that showed my faith in language and its related ecstasies.
TM: You insist that everything, including language, is material. I was interested in how your writing process relates to your art practice.
HD: I make a lot of sculptures. I’m a matter lover, and when writing, I tend to address thoughts and words like they’re objects, found or made. It’s weird, though, because, as I said, with language, there’s an expectation of eventual clarity. Or maybe what I mean to say is, in reading prose, we often wrestle with a desire for mastery. In viewing sculpture, we bring a very different set of expectations. But my experience of words is that they do things other than represent awesome, terrible, amazing things, and sequencing in time is also powerful as a tool, and it feels sculptural and also poetic. And by poetic, I mean to say, so specific that it’s still moving, still alive.
TM: The book moves through time in ways that refuse the linear progression of a traditional memoir. Were you thinking about genre when writing?
HD: I mean, I wanted to make a book that I myself would like to read, and I really don’t like anything too straightforward. This has always been the case for me. I was not thinking about genre. I was not thinking about breaking rules. Over decades, I’ve sort of trained myself away from fighting with categories. Mostly, now I just sort of forget to remember them. I think having an art practice in which I’ve spent years trying to track what I call my hot spots and to find manifest forms that will work has done that. Anyway, for what it’s worth, I’m just trying to stay exactly on top of my best weirdest thought. To tell you about the questions and also live the questions. And regarding the correlation of the history of philosophy and scientism and rationality, I believe, in the book, I was actually trying to poke a stick into those linkages as truisms, explicitly and implicitly or formally.
As I see it, My Meteorite is like a very large-scale sculpture. It takes 18 hours to see it all, but if you don’t look at everything, it’s not going to add up. Like a long poem, it accrues and by that action becomes itself. That said—and maybe it’s not as obvious as I thought—there are two linear threads in the book, the years 2016 and 2017, and both move forward, so my dad dies at the beginning but also at the end. The momentum is familiar, in a way. I mean, time moves in one direction there, and it’s something for readers to track and care about, keep turning pages.
TM: The various texts you pull into My Meteorite felt like a way of pushing back against familiarity, too. What did your research process look like?
HD: I love being right on the edge of a thought that I can’t quite reach, a weird about-to-sneeze feeling. Ideally, as an artist or writer, I want to stay there, on that raw frontier, cultivating a condition of bewilderment shot through with curiosity. For me, equilibrium and certainty are not delicious foods. [Laughs.] I tend to be overcommitted, maybe to a fault, which is to say that, with everything I do, I intend for it to collide with and inform the problem I’m puzzling out. In other words, I’m always working. My Meteorite is the result of decades of thinking about matter, its habits or intelligences, and by correlation, remote connectedness. My desire to communicate about these subjects, these questions—that’s what kick-started the book.
TM: Your video work is concerned with the possibilities of editing. What did the editing process of the book look like?
HD: Editing the book was similar to editing video in many ways. Grappling with time, with duration, and in all cases I build first. Hunt and gather, if you will. It’s a process of getting some stuff onto the page or onto the timeline. For me, it works better to say “yes” a lot at the front end of a project than to introduce the word “no” too soon. I can’t go backwards in a sculpture, but creating video, I can, and in writing a book, this is obviously possible, as I keep iterations by making new files. That allows a kind of fecund courage to just go crazy, keep building.
TM: It makes me think about your author’s note, in which you say the book was “drafted, in large part, using unaugmented recollection as a primary source.” There’s a feeling that My Meteorite is a true story and also that it’s shaped by problems of distinction, classification, and familiarity.
HD: The book is generally true, whatever that means. And I’m sure it means something—just not sure what. A reader has to consider the force of the frame, the force of distillation, the force of literary license. And to your question, the fact-checker did great work, tons of important stuff, corrected quotations and sources, but for example, they wanted to correct facts about the oldest tree in the world, how many rings it had. I said, “No I’m doing this from memory.” Misremembering is generative. Sort of a paradox, the sum of presence plus absence. A false memory can set life into a certain groove. It has effects. This is partly what the book is interested in. The figure of the misremembered sculpture in the book serves to remind us of that. And this idea of thoughts bearing force or, you know, having effects, maps onto ideas of the imaginary and, obviously, the virtual.
TM: It was an eerie coincidence that I was preparing for this interview while we are collectively moving away from public spaces and social settings. I keep returning to your line “We are porous and we are dependent, and the fuzz of that interdependence is specifically the site of a paradoxical resistance to capitalism.”
HD: It’s awful and awesome realizing, on any level at all, the extent to which we’re penetrated, formed, and continually reformed by the world, a world we conventionally consider to be outside of our skins but which, of course, is not strictly—or maybe in any sense at all—the truth. One thing that’s happening right now is that, collectively, we’re being starkly reminded of just how interconnected we are. A virus moves from creature to creature, surface to creature, reproduces, and in a matter of months has encountered hundreds of millions of other creatures. The magnitude of that spread, by actual contact, is just breathtaking. The other thing that’s happening is a kind of endgame experiment with socializing remotely, socializing by screen—a version of remote connectedness that messes with the distinction between presence and absence.
TM: Mechanophilia—the love of machines—seems important here. Throughout the book, you suggest that attraction to everyday objects might help us reimagine how we relate to the matter around us.
HD: Yes, there’s the AI relationship [I write about] in [Spike Jonze’s] Her and the instance I mention in which a guy is fucking the tailpipe of his car. Those examples are meant to be hyperbolic or poetic versions of, you know, loving matter, being in love with matter. [Laughs.] Which is—well, let’s say it’s on a continuum with how I feel, as a sculptor, as a thinker, as a body sensitive to other bodies.
TM: To circle back to my first question, I can’t help but wonder if you feel you broke out of the trappings of language. Which I guess is to ask, while writing, did you find any answers?
HD: The experience of writing really shifted something about the way I thought about my relationship with my birth mother. I wouldn’t characterize the epiphanies as answers, but the process has definitely shed some light, definitely transformed my emotional realities with regard to that relationship. I had been so troubled, you know, really confused, and by the time I finished writing the book, my experience of that relation was more peaceful. I felt more compassion, more tenderness. I didn’t know that was going to happen. I didn’t think of the book as therapeutic in the least, and I’m not sure I would characterize it as such, but things shift when you make art and you’re touching it in some honest or raw way. That’s not why I make art. I make it primarily to make social objects. I’m often creative because I’m trying to say something to somebody so that I can have some company, so I hole up alone for a year or whatever, and I do these things, and then I present them, thinking somehow they’re going to function as really effective, clear mediating objects that people feel loved by. [Laughs.] While I now know that is definitely not the case, it’s still the case that I do that to try to be legible or to try to make offerings or try to be social or try to offer auspicious objects or loving things.