Robert Morris LevineDo you have a thing for rats?
Ryan FoersterI sympathize with them: their nomadism, their industriousness, their hunting and gathering. So many of us revile them—I have had more than a few rat infestations myself—but they’re just making use of what we leave behind. A few years ago the New York Times ran an article tracing human evolution to a “rat-sized ancestor.” It was front page news. I enjoy thinking about our common heritage.
RMLI sense a kinship. For one, rats scavenge. You dumpster dive, rummage through the trash, and use your pickings as material.
RFWe share instincts, for sure. I don’t think about my scavengings as garbage really just because one person looked at the material that way. I think of it more as material in another part of its life-cycle. Where rats are more so into searching for things to eat or make nests as survival mode, I’m about playing with it. I enjoy making things from what someone else thinks of as trash and there is really a great feeling when I find something unexpectedly and use it with something else and it just clicks.
RML“Decay” is another word that attaches itself to your work. But you prefer “compost.”
RFI’ve become irritated with this description—”decay.” It is too simple. I am focused on the entire cycle of a material’s existence. “Composting” makes space for all of the moments in that process.
RMLYou commonly re-exhibit works at different stages in their composting. In 2012, a hurricane flooded your archive, damaging a box of early photographs. You chose to present them as new works. You later said that, “At first I thought about them as ruined, but now I’m not sure that’s what really happened.”
RFThose photos had been stored in boxes and moved between homes with me; some were finished and some test prints. When Hurricane Sandy hit, they were altered overnight by a burst of nature. I like that. The hurricane accelerated a way of working that I’d begun to develop a few years prior. In 2009, a photograph of mine was damaged in a group show at Martos Gallery. I didn’t want to waste it; I’d spent money to print and mount it. I left it in my yard and it began to corrode and collect bird shit. With time, it came to resemble the universe. I reshowed the work at Martos in 2011.
I make documentary photographs and documentary films. But I open this documentation to other things, times scales, interferences, and types of life. It feels more honest to how I'm thinking.
RMLIn 2013 you founded the publishing imprint RATSTAR, another nod to your verminous muses.
RFI had been reading lots of Anne Sexton at one point and my partner, the poet Hannah Buonaguro, pointed out her work titled Rats Live on No Evil Star. I’m a sucker for palindromes. I cut it down to RATSTAR. I like the contrast between stars and rats and linking them together.
RMLWith RATSTAR, you seem to be as invested in preservation as you are in decomposition. One of your first books was of Paul Buonaguro's writings from 1975. You later published a collection of "junk artist" Robert Mallary's early drawings and prints.
RFIt’s true. Those works weren’t available anywhere and I wanted people to be able to see them. Paul Buonaguro originally made UNDEAD in the seventies but it wasn’t printed how he had wanted and it fell by the wayside.
I came across Mallary’s drawings when I visited his house studio with Mitchell August, who had been friends with Mallary when he was alive. A barn was filled with all of this work—sculptures, drawings, computer art, so much amazing stuff. I found it hard to believe a lot of it had not been seen before and knew I had to make a publication of at least some of it. Mitchell was organizing a show that included illustrations that Mallary made while living in Mexico in the 1930s. He had been concerned with the rise of fascism, which felt particularly relevant in 2018. Plus, the drawings were small enough to fit on a scanner so I made those into a book.
I feel a kinship to Mallary, especially after doing a two person show with him at Kerry Schuss Gallery. He would gather materials like dirt, wood, and fabric on walks around his Manhattan studio and combine them into assemblages.
RMLSo many of RATSTAR’s publications emerge from your relationships with friends and family. Wolfe-Arama Jokes from Ira is a collection of jokes that your neighbor Ira Wolfe emailed you each day for three years. You have also produced a monograph by your "adoptive grandmother" Silvianna Goldsmith.
RFI could just be lazy. I don’t go much further than my neighbors, family, and friends to make books. Paul Buonaguro is Hannah’s father. Ira lives next door. He still emails me his jokes, day in and day out. He loved Wolfe-Arama. He sold it at the bodega, at the doctor’s office—all five hundred copies. The New York Public Library even bought one.
I met Silvia at Camera Club; she was a member. One day, she asked me to help move things in her studio. Our relationship grew from there. I began to learn more about all of her activist work. I discovered these stacks of watercolors that she’d made in a class at the senior center. I told her they were really good. I brought them to White Columns and we made a show of them. After Silvia passed away a year ago, I scanned all of her smaller work while clearing out her apartment. I made the book as a gift for her family members. I published another version to share her work with more people.
I’ve also done a book with my mom, Janice Turner. She made all these paintings with the word “cunt” in them: “busy cunt,” “lazy cunt,” “poetic cunt,” “crafty cunt,” “caffeinated cunt.”
I like keeping it close to home.
RMLYour own book-making started amongst friends. From 1997 to 2001, you published twelve issues of the ‘zine Dear Henry Wang with your high-school friends.
RFDear Henry Wang was our first attempt to put some creative expression into the public. It was so much fun to make, and we met so many people through it. I still make books for the same reason: if I like someone’s work, I want to get it into the hands of as many people as possible. It gives me such a high.
RML>On the cover of the first issue, you wrote in blue ball-point, "50¢ or best offer!" You still ask 50¢ for your ‘zines.
RFI’m not sure why we priced that at 50¢. We printed it for free at my dad’s office. Now I just divide the cost of production by the print run. I like being a publisher because books are so accessible. I try to keep everything as cheap as possible.
RMLYou return often to the xerox'd and staple bound form. But you've also made a book that is a Sandwich in a bottle. I'm reminded of Dieter Roth's Literaturwurst.
RFI love Roth’s publications. Sandwich in a bottle isn’t a book, per se, but I did sell it at Printed Matter. I have fun testing the limits of what they will carry; I once dropped off a wet bathing suit. Thankfully they put up with it. Sandwich in a bottle was a twisted joke that I decided to make as a series. They were very easy to construct; you just cut-off the bottom of a wine bottle, put in half of your sandwich, and super-glue it back together. A friend bought one and would send me a photo every few months as it molded. Over time the mold released so much gas that the bottle exploded.
RMLYou’ve sold Sweet'N Low sugar packets at Printed Matter, too.
RFI took those from a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts and tapped them to the storefront window. We charged a dollar and sold them all. That was a markup, admittedly. When I worked for Rob Pruitt, we would always get Dunkin’ Donuts, so there were sugar sachets littered across the studio. I started taping them up. I think that Rob appreciated it.
RMLYou printed your latest book, Capitali Aruouist, just last week.
RFAs the United States Capital was under siege, I screen-shotted all the photos I could find on the New York Times, Daily News, and New York Post, thinking that they might be removed. As I was reading, I was served all sorts of advertisements. Below an image of confederate-flag-brandishing insurrectionists would be an ad for a wedding ring, or Grubhub, or a luxury apartment. Some of the juxtapositions were so funny—and so dark. I thought it would make an interesting book. It came in just a few hours. When I saved the book in InDesign, I typed something very quickly. It was something about the Capital but I forget the other word I was trying to spell. Hence the title.
I organized a book sale last weekend at a local park and Capitali Aruouist got a nice response. It was so much fun to be with people again, talking and trading books. I’d missed that.