David Vichnar & Narmin Ismiyeva sit down with Mike Corrao to talk about his book Desert Tiles, forthcoming with Equus Press in September 2021.
EP: In your other works—thinking here of Man, Oh Man! (Orson’s) or Gut Text (11:11)—you’ve been involved with the process of “text becoming alive”. What’s the thinking behind this theme and (how) is it worked into Desert Tiles?
MC: It often feels like prose work is confined to this very rigid set of narrative parameters, but I find it much more compelling to evade them. I’m very much drawn towards alternative forms of presentation and progression in writing. In presenting the text as organismal / alive, I want to bring forward the idea of a work that is not set in stone—that can change between readings. It feels like one of the most straightforward ways to do this is through ambiguity. By creating multiple pathways through a work, all of them of equal importance and validity. With Rituals Performed in the Absence of Ganymede I wanted to extend that liveliness by creating a space where the text could manipulate you / degrade you / pity you. Perhaps continuing that progression, Desert Tiles is luring you into the textual environment. Becoming alive through ecology rather than biology. My hope is that this book will act as a Tarkovskyan Zone, manipulating time around the reader, and toying at their unconscious.
EP: Previously—here I’m thinking of Smut-Maker (Inside the Castle) and Material Catalogue (Alienist)—your texts have engaged heavily with the visual element of paperspace, whether with images, photographs, colourful typography, etc. How does Desert Tiles take this tendency further?
MC: Smut-Maker was a highly spatial work. Taking the two-page spread and reorienting it as a stage / performance space. Converting text into actor / set-dressing. With Material Catalogue the goal was to emulate a commercial product catalogue, then subject it to intense corruption. Desert Tiles is a much more temporalized work. The structuring of the text and the layout of its various sections are attempting to manipulate the reader’s experience of duration. Creating these moments of slowness and acceleration throughout. For many of my previous projects, I’ve been concerned with navigability—looking at ways that we can change traditional modes of moving through a text, but I realize now that my approach was incomplete. We can’t just look at the pathing of the interaction, but we must prod at how long it takes to traverse that path, and how we can manipulate that path (outside of simply elongating it) to cause a temporal strangeness. In Desert Tiles this is often done through changing complexities and legibilities. Some portions of the text are intentionally difficult to read. Others are large and sparse.
EP: What seems to be a novelty specifically in Desert Tiles are the twin metaphors you engage with throughout. The first is that of text as a desert: both the literal one (as the ever-shifting “dune-script” of meaning) and a place “deserted” (i.e. voided of subjectivity, voided of the voice) into which the reader is to venture out. What other meanings inform this theme?
MC: When there are other voices present, other stories and characters, things happening in the background, other places to look, etc. it is easy to forget that the reader is here, occupying space in the text. But, in the deserted desert, it is impossible to ignore their presence. There is only one identifiable character in the text, and they never really speak for themselves. Often, they’re paraphrased, or their speech is left untagged / ambiguously integrated into the base prose. The reader is the only figure in Desert Tiles with agency. I wanted to utilize these metaphors as a means to pull the reader into this fabricated environment—to make their participation in the text fully unavoidable.
EP: The other overriding metaphor is that of reading as necromancy, as summoning the voice of the absent/“dead” author, communing with the past action(s) of signification & by decoding it, yielding messages for (some kind of) the future. Are there any voices that Desert Tiles engages with in particular?
MC: I think that it is the book itself that is being summoned. Text is to an extent autonomous—it functions whether you engage with it or not. Even if it is not read, it has still succeeded in accumulating language and archiving whatever’s housed inside. But in this state, the work is dormant. It is not active / growing / mutating. It is only vitalized when the reader engages with it, when they move through the paperspace and imbue it with new meanings and pathways. Necromancy here is the summoning of the text from its dormant state into an active one. Perhaps embodied by the semiotic organisms scattered through the contents of the work. Desert Tiles is not so much engaging, but waiting to be engaged with.
EP: Who do you see as the necromancer that we haptic pilgrims of the keyboard and screen quest for? Is there, to your mind, such a central presence/intermediary with which to commune, or is it a Derridean center of shifting substitutions holding no permanent form, spiraling like the windblown dunes of your desert? In other words, is there a necromancer in the medium of traversal or is the medium of traversal itself the necromancer?
MC: The necromancer is the medium of traversal. It is the amorphous thing that lures us deeper into these virtual spaces.
EP: Thinking of such passage as “it is natural / for the body / to break down” and “it would not / be a good decision / to re-enter the desert,” the voices that stand out in Desert Tiles seem to literalise the Ballardian post-apocalyptic industrial “wasteland” as desert, while riffing on such classical Deleuzian motifs as BwO, lines of flight, etc. What does your practice of “theory fiction” do to either of these genres?
MC: In searching for alternative forms of progression and presentation, I’ve become very attracted to the incorporation of theoretical modes into my work. Most of my work does not follow a narrative route but rather orbits around a handful of concepts or ideas. Often the text becoming alive is part of this. But I’ve found that this theory fiction space offers a lot of flexibility and potential in how a piece can be constructed. My goal is often to meld and mutate these two genres until the result is unrecognizable—something that doesn’t feel like fiction or theory. A hybrid that cannot be separated into its clearly defined components. I’m not sure what kind of effect that result has. It’s difficult to speculate from the position of the person making the work. More I think what I set out to make is something that I feel I did not make myself—that I only participated in the making of. Pulling from various cultural theorists, philosophers, writers, game developers, etc. allows for the work to be infected by other artists’ influence. It removes the author from that central position of power. I hope.
EP: Another strong topic of Desert Tiles seems to be “environment immersion”—in particular, you seem to cast the reader in a non-digital fabricated environment, with differing reading speeds for each of the section. Is this to counter the prevalent tendency of producing reading matter for easy and quick consumption?
MC: I think that digital and textual spaces can both be categorized under this label of the ‘virtual.’ Of this simulated environment. With both setting out to create an artificial setting for their user. Fiction often attempts to create a verisimilitude around the reader—this fantasy screen of the narrative. Authors talk about suspension of disbelief or diegesis being integral to the success of a novel. There is always this concern with encasement. The reader is “consumed” by what they’re reading. With Desert Tiles I would like to explore an alternative kind of immersion—in a space that is not so vitally reliant on traditional narrative structures. The text itself can act as a means of our encasement. It doesn’t need that fantasy screen. It can be the thing that we inhabit. I don’t want to lure the reader into this sly imaginary, I would like to do so knowingly, dragging them in by their feet.
EP: There are also some immediate connotations between the simulacra desert of Desert Tiles and the life of the average person online. The wasteland described seems also to point towards the aimlessness of lives lived increasingly on the Internet. Here, the desert tiles traversed felt very much like allusion to the keyboard “tiles” our fingers “walk” endlessly and often without closure or satisfaction. Was this a metaphor you had in mind?
MC: I didn’t have something so succinct in mind, but I can very much see the connection. I wanted to create Desert Tiles as a virtual environment, similar to the internet in the way that it consumes the user, but much more simplistic, less welcoming, less willing to reveal the information it’s housing.
EP: Desert Tiles is structured with one visuo-textual sequence following the other. What is their progression? Is each sequence a variation on a particular idea or does it stand for a specific ‘stage’ in the systematic evolution as the work unveils?
MC: Each sequence is attempting to create its own spatiotemporal constraints—reorganizing the paperspace to create a different experience of duration and a different method of navigation for the reader to utilize. My hope is that the progression materializes as this wavering and unstable connection to duree. Our body is always adapting to a new speed, a new direction. I want to promote alienation and at times, discomfort.
EP: The opening pages emphasize the idea of the reader’s physical traversal of the text. The structure of this part is reminiscent of text-based computer games (as per Aarseth in Cybertext). Were they of inspiration to you in DesertTiles?
MC: Very much so! I find a lot of inspiration in videogames. I play a lot of older games (things like Blood, Metal Gear Solid, Vangers, Planescape Torment). I’m really drawn towards the aesthetics of early graphics. The low-poly models and 2d wallpapers that plastered environments. There’s something so compelling about these unnaturally flat surfaces textured with warped images, or the jagged mass of shapes that you’re supposed to interpret as being a human being. They’re beautifully unsettling. With text-based games, I am very much interested in the way that they are forced to focus on the interface. They don’t have access to character models or complex environments yet, so they have to create some kind of abstracted surface for the user to interact with in their place. World of Horror is a really compelling example of this. It’s a recent release, but it utilizes the text-based genre to create this Lovecraftian tension. With most violence occurring in a highly abstract way, yet the work manages to still make that violence visceral and genuine. It’s really inspiring to see work that uses those constraints. It forces an artist to reconsider how they deliver information. It removes whatever default tactics they might have had access to before. I’ve recently found a lot of inspiration in Ville Kallio’s Cruelty Squad. It explores the grotesque ultraviolence and death worship of hypercapitalism. All done in this unconventional but beautiful aesthetic.
EP: Desert Tiles plays with the idea that the birth of the text is literal and requires physical labor. What is the role of the author/reader in this process? Is there, to your mind, any distinction between the author and the reader as the creators of the text?
MC: I do not think the author deserves as much credit as they are often given. As much meaning as I may attempt to imbue into the text, it is the reader who determines what they get out of it. It is the reader that determines how they will navigate each page. It is the reader who is performing the birth of the text—creating something new from its preexisting body. I am only making the preparations. Often while working I will listen to abrasive music or play YouTube videos. I want to allow external influences into the writing process. Sometimes pulling phrases from this content and working it into the text / mutating it as part of a passage. When I am done with a project, it often doesn’t feel like I made it. I feel intimately familiar with the work, as if I’ve read it a lot, but I don’t feel like the writer. And I think that’s how I prefer it. The work is independent of me. I have no power over it.
EP: The quote “The virtual body is made from recycled / parts – previously defunct projects / mapped onto a new pre-corpse” is particularly noteworthy. How would you describe the “anatomy” of your text, perhaps in terms of materiality and spectrality?
MC: I think it occupies a similar space to the semiotic organisms that pulsate throughout the text. It is amorphous and unstable. The limbs or organs that have been delineated are fragile and short-lived—quickly reabsorbed into the globular mass. But at the same time I think there is a spirituality to the work that I cannot quite place. When speaking with Leo Zausen from Exmilitary, he compared the work to the writings of the Desert Fathers (a group of early Christian hermits) which I thought was really compelling. I like the idea of the work as this pilgrimage-inducing mechanism. So perhaps spectrally its anatomy is a mental trigger.
EP: Following that, while also considering the current involvement in the “virality” of codes/texts, would you consider your book (as a material object) as a ‘host’ for the text?
MC: I would, yes. It is the physical housing of the language and images that comprise Desert Tiles. That materiality is very important to me. The power of the text to create this fabricated environment around the reader is largely derived from its tactility. It is not part of the internet, or a file on your computer. It can’t be hidden in some obscure folder on your hard drive. It is a singular object that cannot be compartmentalized within another. And that objecthood creates a strange kind of aura around the work as well I think. I remember when I first got my copies of Gut Text it felt like I’d been sent a haunted artifact. For the first day, I felt like I was just circling it from a distance. It had this overwhelming presence to it that I couldn’t ignore.
EP: “Dreams replicate / the holy orifice / you used to drink from / It mocks you / as every other / organism has come to” is where the journey through Desert Tiles ends. Does this imply a new ‘enlightened’ understanding (cf. the instruction to “debrief yourself” a few pages earlier) or a plunge into despair as reality merges with its simulacra?
MC: Even when we have escaped the desert, its image remains inside of us. I do not know if reality has merged with the simulacra, but it seems that the desert has begun to suture itself—however abstractly—to your mind.
© Mike Corrao, David Vichnar, & Narmin Ismiyeva