ESTEAP Conference Paris – Theatre and migrants










THEATRE CONFERENCE ON MIGRATIONS- Decentering the vision(s) of Europe, October 2018.

Théâtre et Migra(tio)nts

Théâtre, nation et l’identité : entre Migration et Stasis

Nina Živančević

Université Paris – Sorbonne, Université Paris 8


Alors que je marche parmi des corps ensommeillés de réfugiés Syriennes dans la gare routière de Belgrade, en essayant d’adresser mes efforts humains envers l’Autre, ma vie soudainement est apparu devant moi comme si elle a été posée sur un…Et la question « si j’avais jamais quitté cette ville où ma grand-mère avait créé la filière de la Croix Rouge en Serbie et où mon grand-père avait caché les Bakuninists sous son toit pendent leur voyage migratoire de la Russie vers les États Unis » Ici, les questions comme « L’art, est il encore possible ? » ou « C’est quoi sa dernière forme mourante ? » ne me parviennent pas.. Et de même les questions sur la signification de la « résistance », sur le pouvoir migratoire du peuple ou sur la présence de ce pouvoir ou bien son absence dans la vie quotidienne du peuple.


Réfugiés, territoire ,filtre, peau, phénoménologie, membrane, E. Husserl, Théâtre corporelle, Pablo Posada Varela, the Living Theatre



As I’m walking among the sleepy bodies of the Syrian refugees at Belgrade’s  bus station park, trying to address all my human and performative efforts towards the Other, my whole life appears suddenly in front of me as “ on a stretcher” :  have  I ever left this place where my grandmother founded the Serbian branch of the Red Cross, and where my grandfather was hiding the Bakuninists under his roof, on their way from Russia to the United States ? Here, the questions such as “Is art still possible?” and “what is its current dying form?” have never occurred to me, nor the questions about  the true meaning of resistance, the migrating power of people and its dying absence or presence in everyone’s life.


Refugees, Territory, Filter, Skin, Phenomenology, Membrane, E. Husserl, Corporal Theatre, Pablo Posada Varela, the Living Theatre.


Theatre, nation and identity: between Migration and Stasis

A:Idea of a migrant could be incorporated into the saying by Ovid : in this place I AM a barbarian  because men do not understand me.

B:As to an idea of theater, any theater, for me personally the idea had to be extended (not reduced to) to the idea of the corporal theater, theatre which treats body as such, for what it is. The theater which tends to body and all its aspects, body being the basic unit of any theatrical activity.

It is interesting to notice that wherever I lived, I have always felt as a refugee: an artist in an inner, as much as an outer exile. True, no one has ever forced me to leave my homeland, former Yugoslavia as I had left it out of my own free will that distant 1980. I was neither Nabokov, nor Joseph Brodsky or Soljenitsyn. However, the merciless hand of High Capitalism  tattooed with certain Stalinist slogans, has  ruled my country, our schools and our artists and intellectuals . All of us have felt its rude consequences even under the reign of Tito. As I’m walking among the sleepy bodies of the Syrian refugees in a Belgrade’s bus station park, trying to address all my human and performative efforts towards the Other, my whole life appears suddenly on a stretcher in front of my eyes, and here comes a question: have I ever truly left this town where my grandmother founded the Serbian branch of the Red Cross, and where my grandfather was hiding the Bakuninists under his roof, on their way from Russia to the United States? Here, questions such as “Is art still possible?” and “what is its current, ‘disappearing’ form?”, have never occurred to me, nor the questions about the true meaning of resistance or its absence or presence in everyone’s life. The answers to these questions would impose themselves on me quite naturally. Let me dig into some fitting examples of the artistic practices concerning the Migrant theater and the Theater of the Migrants that will help  illustrate my quandary.

As I’m trying to sort out some basic terms operandi let us have a look at the notions of « migration » , migrants and « the migrating forms of theatre ».

 As I worked with the Living  Theater for a long time, for me personally the notion of LIFE, ALIVE and the LIVING have always meant Theatre and it included its various subterms. « The term migration is  closely linked to the construction of the Other, the figure of the foreigner in our everyday realities, in the media, and on stage.  The uprooted person, the migrant figure, whether political, economic or spiritual, often triggers tensions between the familiar and the unknown, native and foreign, us and them.  Within the current global political climate, marked by the increasing rise of the right and of xenophobic sentiments, the term migration prompts us to grapple with a variety of contradictions of hospitality and hostility, of solidarity and security, of activism and passivity, of movement and stasis. “

In the interview (2015) focusing on hosts, migrants and hospitality in general, a leading anthropologist and politico-economic anarchist-activist David Graeber , founder of Occupy

Wall Street movement, who also exiled himself, had a couple remarks to make on the notions of real and ambiguous hospitality:

We are witnessing an incredible global control of the territorial borders and laws which govern their borders. Although we know that the technology has advanced a lot, we are still confronted with an incredible quantity of walls and of frontiers being imposed on us, virtual or non-virtual ones, the walls which cut our planet into a million separate pieces- until recently this was a sort of an abstraction to us and now it’s becoming our physical reality….   in the era of feudalism, people travelled from Africa to England, I don’t mean here the slaves, these travelers were not slaves, they would only enter another country physically, no one prevented them to enter some country. 

 The interesting thing is that they were welcomed pleasantly and warmly by the local inhabitants, the system of hospitality was highly developed and the host felt a moral obligation to welcome a stranger- he would bring the best food to him and feed him for three days. Perhaps if this guest overstayed the host could turn him into a slave-  we will not enter here the psychological aspects or reasons for someone’s hospitality! The Austrian anthropologist Franz Steiner had written a lot about this problem, he wrote a doctoral dissertation, “On nature of slavery”, where he developed the thesis related to his personal experience- he himself was a refugee in England but at that time an already famous professor who had always said that people had been inviting him to visit them, wined and dined him, asking him to read his interesting work- only to ask him all sorts of favors in the end, for instance- to wash the dishes! “ Further along, discussing the notion of the Other and his presence in a new environment Graeber remarked: “It seems that in so called Western Europe- the administration and the government started to calculate how many refugees they could accept and which jobs these could eventually get, and where they would feel the best. Oddly enough, they came up with the calculus that the first and the best country for the refugees was Hungary!! …It seems that the National Front and their anti-immigrant politics are to be found today in those small towns and villages where the refugees would not land anyways. In France, for instance and in some other countries where the National Front is in action, their representatives live in those forlorn places spared by the immigrants. In London, for instance, the representatives of the National Front have never met the immigrants in person- as they live in those posh suburbs where the immigrants never go, and- if they were to meet some of them they wouldn’t even know what to say, what to ask, how to present themselves.. The Germans seem all of a sudden more tolerant in treating the refugees who arrive there now. I would like to emphasize the fact that the Germans had not entirely created all the forms of torture or behavior towards the minorities during WWII- all these forms had already existed in the big colonial empires: the concentration camps, the bureaucratic consensuses and lists of special citizens in Holland and in France, as well as the systematic avoidance of laws, and the double standard for the application of these laws to different groups of inhabitants, as prescribed by the Geneva convention when it was signed- these were not applied in their colonies. This is to say that in a conflict between the empire and say, the Zulu tribe, or in Ecuador, the laws from the Geneva convention were not respected in these territories. The arms that the empire used there were not even known as such in Europe, like those “dum-dum bullets » for instance.  However, the Germans pushed the farthest the war terror as they decided to use the most drastic forms of armament over the population which they declared not white, though these people were seen as “white” by all other nations but the Germans.” In discussing the relationship between the current politics towards the migrants and the Arts in general (here we’ll focus on Drama Studies), Graeber commented on Jacques Ranciere’s remark  that politics and art build a fictive relationship, and that something that we see and what we do is just a part of that relationship. So  what we do and what we could do in future is another part of that relationship.  What kind of relationship could be built between the refugees and the countries where they arrive? 

Graeber agrees that there is a fictive, imaginary relationship between them – and he says that people project all sorts of desires when they meet with the foreigners; we observe here strange and perverse desires as they find these foreigners different from them, however we know that the precondition for building solidarity with the refugees is the feeling of equality and togetherness. Another thing is that people like to see the refugees as victims, they sympathize with them until the certain moment, they imagine themselves in a similar situation which causes them to have empathy, until the moment when these poor refugees start feeling good. Then their hosts’ feelings change, they start having certain doubts in regards to these refugees, now the question is- how do we overcome this feeling?”

Graeber also elaborates on  the term migration  which immediately invokes one of the central political, social, humanitarian and cultural issues of our time.  It conjures images of people on cramped boats approaching the Italian island of Lampedusa and of people trying to jump on board lorries to cross the English Channel; images of dead bodies floating in the sea and of places left behind, turned to rubble; images of refugee camps from Dadaab in Kenya, the size of Minneapolis, to the infamous ‘Jungle’ in Calais. The notion of migration is intrinsically linked to questions of mobility and access as it evokes various performances of borders—for some they are porous, almost flexible, and for others they are impenetrable. The fences erected along the US and Mexican border and the India and Pakistani border, the checkpoints and walls separating Israel from the West Bank, the razor-barbed wire the Hungarian government installed on the border with Serbia to stop the influx of refugees: all these elements map the most extreme aspects of migratory geographies, playing out over and over again the Derridian hospitality/hostility paradox. Here, I’m quoting David Graeber again:

The notion of Other does not include only fear but also the attraction which we feel towards the Other. Whenever I’ve read the Levinas observations about the face, human face I was hearing him, in a paradoxical way, as we are all the same, in the sense that we all come from mankind, that they are all different. Levinas wishes to point to the absolute uniqueness of each of us, of each face which we cannot entirely assimilate, which causes certain pain but also an awareness in us that everyone is unique and special. And that it forms a part of the humanizing process, makes us human, this sort of constant appropriation of awareness that every human being is unique. As an anthropologist I am in a constant process of studying the Other and I am constantly aware that the Other is different and that we are constantly of the verge of an abyss of not understanding other culture, and the so called  Other- we are reaching here the point of limitation in us- I often do not understand my own brother who is a great unknown to me.”

When asked to  reflect upon  Karl Marx’s economic postulates which would ultimately claim that the refugees and the migrants are not such a weight or burden on Europe,Graeber explained that these  could be a source of investment for Europe which needs a greater working force.That force is neither physical nor ‘intellectual’ , and it represents “the force of immaterial labor” as Tony Negri called it. Graeber further continues :.” if I could draw a certain parallel- in North America the situation is clear: until recently all immigrants without papers there had a status which was worse than any pariah’s- they were not allowed to vote nor they had any other rights.  They did not have a syndicate which would allow them to speak out, and only recently there started a movement for civil rights which allows for these people to speak out. At the same time the immigration coming from Mexico becomes ever prominent in the US, and the politicians on the top are constantly reflecting whether they should throw them out of the country or not- they cannot agree on this issue- and what these immigrants are today is exactly what the capitalist class has always been fighting for: to have a group of people who have no legal rights and who don’t have a workers’ syndicate capable of defending their rights.  As they don’t even have a right to have a syndicate, these people are in a legal limbo.  So here we are talking about work which is legally outlawed. These illegal workers have no rights and they swim in the waters where everyone can throw them out at any moment and this is exactly what the capitalists want. “

 This problematic is widely explored in Silvina Landsmann’s experimental film HOTLINE which describes a daily work of a NGO in Tel Aviv, the agency which fights for human rights of the migrants coming from Sudan and Eritrea to Israel.The questions of right for the asylum and the feelings of non-hospitality in the nation composed entirely of refugees are raised here. But not only domain of film treats the problem of migrant workers- the medium of theatre  always treats the problematics of the Double and has started recently conceiving its role as the major mediator between the Double and the Other. Several issues are at stake here. As Graeber again pertinently remarked, one of

the problems starts when “ the migrants who move into someone’s territory want to take leadership over the territory where they have just landed- if the Syrians wanted to take leadership in European countries where they have just arrived,  that would be a problem. After the II World War the Europeans thought that they had to do something, at least partially for the Jews, and as it was not possible for them to give the Jews a part of the European territory, they decided that the Jews should be directed towards Palestinian lands. You see how that thing got totally complicated as the Jews were originally Europeans as well. This is all a very sad story- when I moved to London in a quarter called Bethlehem Green one could still find numerous synagogues. However, through certain municipal decrees by the end of 1990s, the Brits started moving Muslim refugees into this quarter, telling them “this is the area where you are going to feel at home”. This is just one of the examples which show how the Zionist politics has done the most harm to the Jewish population itself.” And again, beyond its immediate, topical invocations, the terms migration and migrants implies, more broadly, a body of persons or animals migrating together. These moving migrating bodies range from the political to the economic and to the spiritual; from refugees and asylum seekers to tourists, guest-workers, and visiting scholars; and they even stretch beyond human migration to include other kinds of migrating bodies—inspiring us, perhaps, to think of migration as a kind of a performative ecology that involves a wide variety of agents, processes and geographies.

       Migration understood as an act—a form of being/doing—unfolds within different socio-political scenarios and through a repertoire of performative and affective gestures making possible for both individual and collective aspects to emerge. Dictionary definitions also describe the term ‘as movement from one part of something to the other’ — which includes both spatial and temporal dimensions, individuals, communities, animals, but also forms, ideas, aesthetics, and conventions. Thus, migration emerges as ultimately a relational category. In chemistry, it means a change or movement of atoms in a molecule. In physics, it means diffusion—the intermingling of substances by their natural movement. Applied to culture, these attributes of migration also suggest the spreading, mixing and remixing of forms and ideas. Hence, migration does not unfold in a straight line; it is rather a process of moving from one point to the other that necessitates meandering, wandering, changing of pace, transformation, negotiation, and adaptation.

The contemporary theater is highly aware of all the different problems which rise with the relocation of migrants to someone’s territory. There was a conference recently given in April 2018 at la Sorbonne which tried, through the work of the current contemporary theater companies to answer some of the following questions  such as :how have theatre and performance responded to the issues of exile, displacement and Otherness both historically and in our times? How has the process of migration been shaped and reshaped through various political, social, cultural and artistic scenarios? How can the notion of migration be employed to grapple with issues of cultural cross-fertilization, transfer, appropriation and mutation?  What does constitute ecologies of migration in theatre and performance (and beyond)?

Within the scope of the seminar VALE , Elisabeth Angel-Perez, Kerry-Jane Wallart and Jeanne Schaaf gave a report -summery on the work of the companies of the “Theatre of NON-LIEU”. The report was notably on the work of the virtual and nomadic Scottish National Theatre which moves from one city to another virtually and allegedly occupying the same mental space within the spectator as other  companies physically do.

Another company worth mentioning here is ERRINA company founded by Anastassia Politi, a Greek director whose brother drowned in Italy doing his activist work on the migrants’ boat near Lampedusa island. ERRINA is a completely nomadic, migratory enterprise in terms that it employs theatrical settings, props and scenery on the spot, whenever it gives performances as it moves from Greece to France, from the north to the south performing the thematic units related to the migrants’ life, and is always on the move.

The visual artist Judith Barry is displaying her work entitled Global Displacement in the memory of the Lampedusa’s boats at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the states. She conceived her work in an inflatable boat, somewhat similar to the one that was drowned near Lampedusa filled with the collages of asylum seekers and followed with the artist’s words « nearly 1 in 100 people worldwide are displaced from their homes ». In this particular case boat is seen as the stage for daily life, that is living performances given by the asylum seekers. Looking up, the asylum seekers greet the effortlessly hovering drone with the mixture of relief and elation- even though the drone is not human, and even though the resulting encounter is no guarantee of a rescue or of entry into another country. There are hundreds of these images circulating online, says Pieranna Cavalchini, Curator of Contemporary Art. The refugee crisis is on-going and shows no sign of abating.

According to Pablo Posada Varela, a contemporary philosopher of phenomenology, the question of frontier is very old and profound as it touches the essence of human being. What is a frontier anyways ? Is it something that distinguishes our interior from the exterior in a human being ?; By definition it is not an impenetrable wall but more of a filter. A human being is above all an animal, a living being which moves and that’s ?the first quality which distinguishes it from an inanimate object. The man recognizes its exterior by the limit imposed by his skin ; this membrane and this frontier saves his interior from spilling to the outside world. But this membrane is never conceived as the rigid wall, it is porous whose function is to protect, to assimilate and to evacuate, Varela says.If we exposed this frontier too much, it would be destructive for our interior, but an excessive closure would lead the body to natural death. This frontier, our skin, defends our interior which is, according to the philosopher « transcendental » and which is also different from the man’s « visceral » interior. A man, as an animal, has a constant need to move, to conquer his territory outside himself, but his own territory is designed by his skin which guarantees him certain serenity and defends him from climate, and from other animals, but the man seeks an exterior territory which is secure and  which the animal counts on in order to survive. When basic security of his territory disappears, the man as an animal moves in order to find another territory and in this basic instinct lies the phenomenon of migrations. The skin as the protective denominator does not always protect the body, that’s why we put additional clothes on it, in order to save the energy of our interior. We add to the clothes protection provided by the house, then the roof, a city and then the country, a supplement of the « membranes » to protect our interior. But these membranes, as we have seen have a double sense, they are just the filters. Our body has bladder and openings on it, the house does not consist only of  walls, it has windows, doors and other openings. The body itself if it wants to survive, it has to be able to « go out ». A space without openings is either a tomb or a prison ; thus humans build these transitional places where they grow up, where they can retreat and the frontier conceived in those terms is visceral and already included into the bio-topology of man’s nature. However, Varela says that aside from this so-called visceral determination of man’s interior/exterior, there is a transcendental interior of a man, the sum of his experiences which he lived phenomenally. The man moves in his thought through the past, his presence and his future, his interior here has no frontiers and he moves his interior transcendentally, ignoring borders, now supported by the technological crutches, that is, by the virtual equipment. But here Varela says that despite the intricate specifics which we get today in technology, and regardless of all the prosthesis and mediation given to us by the virtual , it cannot replace the living experience of a certain subject. This sentiment of the experience lived here and now puts the idea of the virtual theater into an abyss if not garbage. The idea of   phenomenology teaches us that the spaces that we mark by our presence and our experience are also the spaces that mark our interior. Therefore the migrants’ theater can be  seen as an osmosis of frontiers, our inner frontiers as well as the exterior ones which shape our experience, as much as we shape them by crossing them constantly. The presence of a human body is quite important in a theatrical experience, although, the virtual experience either in theater or in a psychiatric session via Skype is an experience highly acceptable and belongs to the realm of something which Marc Richir, a Husserlian scholar would name « a perceptive phantasia ».

There are two theater companies which follow Richir’s philosophical investigation, both of them work actually in Paris . They presented their work within the scope of the thematic festival EXILE which took place in LA MAISON des Metalos in the third week of May. The first show entitled simply Crocodiles or the Real History of  a Youngster in Exil follows the original story of the author Fabio Geda contained in the book « There are Crocodiles in the Sea ». Here, the excellent performance by a young Remi Fortin reveals a story of a young Afgani boy , Enaitollah, whose mother, fearing the massacre commenced by the Hazaras, first smuggles the boy into Pakistan. Here the boy is left alone and during the five years he tells his story of a 9 year old who  crosses the borders of Iran, Turkey and Greece all alone, until he finally reaches Italy. This piece in a form of monodrama (one -man person) is  directed with a really great sensitivity by the French directors Cendre Chassanne and Carole Guittat. Although The directors are not themselves the displaced people,  they skillfully manage to find  both the intimate and universal words for Enaiat to address the audience so in the end the public can affirm that this humanist show  transcends tragedy in its final message as it makes us believe in a possibility of true human openness and hospitality.

The second play entitled « Countries of Misfortune and Sorrow », and directed by Charlotte Le Bras is much less encouraging that the Crocodiles. It was mainly realized after the book written by Younes Amrani and Stéphane Beaud , the book which retells the « dark matter » or the problematic part of the recent French history, the one of their colonization, and the so called « assimilation » of the North African families who came to live and work in France. Very few authors would tackle this subject, and rightly speaking, they certainly avoid  this particular thematic which has, from Camus up  to recently Tahar Ben Jalun, provoked many authors to think about this complex issue. However, it seems that we have never had enough of this particular theme in France as the wounds are deep. Younes Amrani is a sociologist who worked in a public library in 2002 where he started rethinking the social issues, notably the suffering through which the generations of his parents- migrants to France, had to go through.  Two actors and an actress in this play represent different voices of Younes who had listened in his youth the underprivileged voices of his cousins and friends living in a ghetto while fighting for human rights. The children of the immigrants are often more split apart in their fight for justice than their elders ; they love the notion of the ancient country where their parents came from, but they also love the « new » country adopted by their parents which they  call their home. Here, again, the migrants’ story is different from the story of the migrants fighting for « bare life », they are fighting for the recognition and an access to social privileges guaranteed to everyone in the democratic society. They all agree that « el ghorba »(exile in Arabic) is a condition which is utterly unfavorable, but it could be overcome but the willful means. In the play there is a voice of the Maghreb kid who has seen a lot, just by growing up in his ghetto, in this « country of misfortune » as he calls it. He prefers prison to growing up in « freedom » where he is constantly humiliated and reminded that he does not have his real place in it. In 1996 the Maghreb encounters religion, becomes a « good Fundamentalist ». The director and her company, les Papavéracées, magnificently explain throughout the play how the terrorism comes to be conceived and born in the West or in the « countries of sorrow and misfortune ». In other words, as much as the Maghrebans , or the involuntary work force, present or are viewed as « a misfortune » to the Westerners in their lands,  the same goes for the North Africans who view their hosts as the inevitable misfortune which fell upon their shoulders through the acts of colonization.

In conclusion : the problem of migrations and the migrants’ stories I already tried to tackle in my book « 11 Women Artists in Exile » which I published in 2011 in Paris. In this work, which follows the steps of Edward Said in his investigations, I tried to distinguish the phenomena of « bare life », bare existence and the « meaningful or the « thinking life », vita contemplativa, as Hanna Arendt would have it. The migrants have right to both. Often they are fighting for the first one only, and the presence of theater, of a theatrological situation attests to the presence of the second one. Walter Benjamin tries to distinguish both forms of living while discussing the notion of « the mythic violence’ : The application of mythic violence to life produces a very peculiar form of life , naked or “bare life”. Bare life is not simply natural or biological life but a product of legal violence: life as bare life is rendered as the natural bearer of guilt, a culpable life, which is, at the same time, the subject matter of the modern humanist “doctrine of the sanctity of life, which [the humanists] either apply to all animal and even vegetable life, or limit to human life” (SW 1, p. 250).

 Benjamin, however, dares to ask what is sanctified in such doctrine – a doctrine, which is also the foundation of the modern idea of inalienable human rights. For Benjamin, the abstract subject matter of human rights is bare life – a life deprived of its supra-biological properties. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the sanctification of life as such leads to a life without

freedom, truth, or justice. From this consideration, Benjamin concludes

that the “idea of man’s sacredness gives grounds for reflection that what

is here pronounced sacred was, according to ancient mythic thought,

the marked bearer of guilt: life itself ” (p. 251). The invention of life and its culpability share the same origin, which is also the mythic ground of modern state violence, sanctioned and justified by the law. The theater which bases its praxis on these tenets has to take into consideration all the aspects of the living, the real, the symbolic and its imaginary issues.

 In “11 Women-Artists, Slavs and Nomads”, my book on the exiles, I also remembered Hal Foster’s notion of the “abject art” which discusses  the “vulnerability of our borders, the fragility of the spatial distinction between our exterior and the interior, as well as the concept of self in a crisis embodied in the cut of the dismantled body whose chopped off members now independently follow their own “game of chess”. Finally,  we  may conclude here that such a traumatic cut is productive because it evacuates and raises the subject, showing us that the totality is an illusion as it also confirms its existence only in multiplicity, in a dynamic interaction of the whole and its segments.


Jason Read : in Companion to Critical and Cultural Theory, Work and Precarity, pp.269-280, Wiley Blackwell Press (ed. by  Imre Szeman, Sarah Blacker)

Nina Zivancevic : 11 Women Artists Nomads and Slavs, NON-LIEU , Paris, 2010

Sami Khatib : Towards a politics of « pure means » :Walter Benjamin and the questions of violence,

 Interview with David Graeber, November 2015, London , conducted by Nina Zivancevic,

Judith Barry: untitled : Global Displacement:

Pablo Posada Varela: Le viscéral et le transcedental. Préliminaires phénoménologiques sur la frontière, Eikasia, revista de filosofia

Pablo Posada Varela: Le dedans entamé. Enjeux et paradoxes du frontalier contemporain,

Eikasia, 2018

La Maison de Metallos, Focus “Exil” du 4 au 24 mai 2018: deux spectacles, “Crocodiles” de Cendre Chassanne et Carole Guittat, et

Pays de Malheur” de la compagnie Les Papavéracées.



The integral text on Ira Cohen was prepared for the EBSN  conference and includes the comments on his Mylar photography.

7 th Annual Conference
Vienna Poetry School – Künstlerhaus 1050
October 3 to October 6, 2018

4. October

Room B: Beat Arts
Nina Zivancevic : Ira Cohen’s Art (‘Mylar chamber’ photographs and poetry)
Chair: Frank Rynne




I picked up the phone that day and learnt that Ira was gone; no more of his voice that made so many people laugh, so many people happy. I hated the fact that I wouldn’t be able to hear his voice again,

I put on “The Majoon Traveler”, “dedicated to Brion Gysin” , produced by SubRosa, poems and music recorded by Ira Cohen, Paul Bowles, Bryon Gysin, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Angus Maclise, DJ Cheb i SABBAH, music recorded in Marrakesh in 1987.

These names, you could only imagine at your cousin’s Birthday party, in someone’s library and so on…for Ira, they were just a part of his reality. Some of them I met personally either with Allen or with Ira or with Huncke, but one thing was for sure- they were part of his daily experience, his own lifestyle, like Ira was a part of my life, and one thing I know: while some friends of his were taking time to write blogs, blurbs and obituaries- I was simply crying.

In his poem to Cocteau (and this I’ve heard accentuated on the tape), he said:

” Imagine whatever you will

But know that it’s not imagination but experience

Which makes poetry and that behind

Every image   behind every word  there

Is something I’m trying to tell you

Something that REALLY HAPPENED”.  (“Imagine Jean Cocteau”)

So, imagine Ira, imagine that day on which I called him from my small Suffolk street apartment in the city of Nouvelle York, and was ready to go quickly to my legal proofreading job, and Ira had kept me on the phone for hours, and I was laughing and laughing, laughing my job out loud…

He said he has just arrived from Amsterdam, and if I knew there Eddie Woods (they started the legendary Ins & Outs Press) and Louise LL and Simon Vinkenoog- that was a damn good start for our friendship.

“Hey, hey”, he said, if you had known all these people, although I am not on speaking terms with some of them any longer—nonetheless, that must mean that you are a VERY nice person!” He was able to keep me on the phone for hours; in fact, he was the only person who was able to keep me on the phone longer than 5 minutes; I say “I”, but this means, “we”, New York downtown community of a couple of friends, or Upper west Side community of actors including Judith Malina, or the Brooklyn community of musicians, and so on.

But Ira was not only a long distance telephone-chit- chat. He was real true blue, gave me a piece of gold when I was down and out in the street, and told me “Sell it! So that you can get your real apartment!” he had a photographic memory, not only a skill to make the incredible photos, great photographer as he was. Ira was a great traveller as well. Now, the journeys do not make any sense, Ira is gone- good-bye happiness, hello Dr. Nadar and other creepy creatures. Ira had said once “butterfly (meaning me) is small and meaningless, but still it knows how to get to Mexico”- three of us went to the airport and Ira who did not have a ticket literally slid through the door onto the plane, and then we had so much fun on this lovely trip to Cancun and Chichen Itza. At that time it was still possible- no terrorists, no big check-ups, just the journey in itself and pure joy of being alive…

Ira was a great traveller and I had a taste of all his travels that time in Mexico- he was staging his photographs carefully- “now stand over here, and stand there,” we all obeyed his whimsical arrangements- then later we saw ourselves on these beautiful, at times scary photos whose “meaning” was turned upside down to serve his artistic purpose. I saw once a marble pillar sticking like a dick, coming out of my head in the MOMA’s sculpture garden- all this on Ira’s photo of course. At that time I was angry with him for having created such a composition but now I say- there was Man Ray before Ira, and that was IT.

And he was truly international. He often complained of his loneliness. In one of his poems he said

“The way of the artist is lonely…, and people are afraid of them, even God created

People because he was lonely, so lonely must be the worst..”

Like all of us, Aquarians, he feared the loneliness the worst, and he would even go for the company of the silliest people on this Earth- just as not to feel lonely! He held the Aquarians in high esteem- he loved Mozart, he adored Henri—Charles Ford, he loved me (at times his muse and a favourite camera object) and many other Aquarians one would never think of befriending!! He trusted them so much that he never questioned their skills or loyalty, as on that trip to Cancun when he allowed me  to take him on that imaginary plane ticket to Mexico, the trip which was purely conceived with my Aquarian skill- and- manipulation- of- a –tourist- agent method, a lovely trip …but, all this belongs to a diary of a madman such as Paul Bowles, Ира Кохен , or..Angus Maclise. Ira had never liked Allen Ginsberg whom I adored, because he acquired “more fame than him in many ways”. Allen had fame, but he had no children.

The last time I saw the latter he said how much he envied Ira, for having sons; I was on the verge of tears- I was expecting a baby.

Ira came to Paris to be there with me for my delivery; I’ll never forget the day when he arrived in Paris- my term was overdue and Ira was taking me around Paris, making me laugh “so that we push the baby out, so that he can come of quickly”- he was placing different plates and objects on my belly and shooting photos, also reciting his poems from the Akashik  records “I am not a beat/ though I have performed with them all etc./ I am an electronic/multimedia shaman,/ a Naga hipster,/ an Akashik Agent, an Outlaw of the Spirit…

The flower of chivalry/with a sword for a leaf/& a lily for a heart…”

That time in Paris we went to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s cryptic gathering, but later they had a big falling out. I wrote a poem about it much much later:

World Championship in Good Manners

I’m all dressed in black and silver

And I’m carrying Ira’s book of black and silver

There are not too many people in this world like Ira

And there are many people like Alejandro Jodorowski

I hear that once they were friends, now they are enemies,

And all these people around Jodorowski

Are just like him – but I won’t name them

I am at a Judo championship with my son and his father

His father and I used to be enemies but now we are friends..

We never got married but we always have to stay

Together through a lifetime – raising a kid

Is such a long job!

My life is full of incongruence; it’s just the other way

Of saying it’s in contradictions-

Like the fact that I am broke and that I bought

A ticket to London; the fact is

That I don’t like London and I don’t even know

Why I’m going to go there: I am going to visit

My ex-husband who does not love me any longer

But at least he was graceful enough to marry me – so

We don’t have to stay together…

It’s 25 degrees in Paris now, very sunny and

we’re eating pizza before the championship;

my son is a Judoka, a living Buddha who bows

before the adversary just as he gives him

the final blow…

he won a number of gold medals but the best

gift for him is my smile, I drink beer, leave the podium,

let go of him – he will have his own life

and his own loves to handle…

I would see Ira on and off, on our various travels, in London, Paris, New York and Amsterdam. His trip to London in 2007 stayed in my memory, he was very ill, came down with a bad flu, and the art dealers in his October gallery did not treat him correctly, thus I wrote the following:


BHUTO Dancers

(for Ira Cohen)

thread of light  this morning

old friends coming from nowhere

going to no place

we are old souls holding

by sheer wit and courage

our encounters repeat light

of multitudes

our repeated lifetimes

(November 2007)


In fact, the things turned so sour between him and the gallery owners that I started reflecting deeply on nature of art and the relationship between the artist and an art dealer. It seemed to me that the artist was always an underdog, neither loved or appreciated by the dealers but rather exploited all the way through. Here we had a major artist, such as Ira, seriously ill with high fever, and the dealers were ignoring his condition by setting more and more appointments with art collectors, not allowing his family to hand him a medication that we bought in a local pharmacy for him, so I wrote this angry poem:



the artist was there and he was happy

he was bright, temporary in his brio,

committed, uncompromising, the uncompromised one,

the gallery owner was nervous and eager to appear

generous, he started barking, showing his teeth and then

his goodwill, he said he was there to help the anonymous

he said he was there to improve the state of arts and

the state, he was not to deal with mental patients

he admitted that they were fragile

the artist saw this as a game of power

he said he disliked the master/slave dialectics

he said he wanted to leave and that he couldn’t care less

as usual, he said he did not care and basically he did not

the gallery owner said that he himself could not care less

he really could not be bothered, he said he was

surrounded by all sorts of artists,

it almost felt like in a mental asylum, he said

he could not give a damn, and why should he?

I said I could not write

this poem I said I could not write a poem unless

it was crystal-clear to me unless something

was so clear that it crystallised a word into an image

a shabby image into a word

I said I wouldn’t have written this poem had I not been

certain of my image   of this sentiment   of this

discomfort turned into words

I said I would not write unless I knew what they

were talking about they pretended they knew

the guttural was beyond the hearsay

the rhymes did not sit well

the sounds could not hold

the images could not stand any pressure

there was no meaning in all this but

in the very essence of things

the meaning of the “less”  prevailed.


Perhaps it was our Eastern European background, perhaps it was our “Aquarian Mickey Mauss club” where we both belonged, but I don’t think that anyone understood me better than Ira did, thus he wrote this truly enlightened words for me on a dedication page of  his Whatever You Say May be Held Against You:

“To do it without thinking, that is the best. & for you it is essential.”

I wrote this text without thinking.


“Not even photography will get you out of prison”

(Mylar Chamber works)


When I quote Cohen, avant-garde poet-cum-photographer-cum-film-maker, connoisseur of the dark sides of life as much as of Rabelaisian humor – I do it out of my “head”, or my subconscious, raking my dearest and nearest memories: I’ve been trying to liberate the space in my surrealist sub-consciousness invaded by Cohen’s images, light and dark, liquid colors stretched all over the brain’s plane for almost a decade – the artist “was here”, very much present, not so long ago.

Photography and the process of taking it used to be for Cohen an act of extreme liberty and an act of liberation, it was able to get us out “of the prison” of our own dwelling, subliminal or real. A Serbian surrealist poet, Djordje Kostic, once said: “Surrealism is not something way beyond the real; it is realism on square!” In one of his poems, Cohen says that he had always tried to say something real, “something that really happened”. His photography really happened, his Mylar chamber theater, his oneiric images happened, as did the act of holding his camera – be it a photo camera or a film camera (for Ira Cohen, the process of making a film was the act of extending his dreamy images into a prolonged movement, the way the best directors, such as Pasolini or Tarkovski, have always done).

We witness this process of ‘extending’ photographs better than anywhere else in Cohen’s long documentary of the Kumbh Mela festival entitled “Kings of the Straw Mats”. This massive gathering is a huge Hindu religious pilgrimage in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river. It is considered to be the largest peaceful gathering in the world with around 100 million people expected to visit holy sites, so dear to Cohen’s heart. The quintessence of Cohen’s art – both in film and photography – may be observed in this film. However, unlike Pasolini or Jean Renoir who observe Indian society as the supreme documentarists (Pasolini in “Notes for a film on India” and Renoir in “Le Fleuve”), Cohen documents the location and transforms his vision into a high artistic experience. He becomes one with the vision of India as he is not a casual observer or just a tourist, a traveler, but absorbs this vast country as a dweller, as a sentient being who has really lived in the sub-continent. However, much like Pasolini, he is also a great visionary-humanist whose Indian themes – religion and hunger –remain forever printed on his celluloid. He sees the “misery of the world” as Pierre Bourdieu qualified the world of the underdeveloped underdogs – Cohen sees the lepers, the blind, the hungry, the religious, but unlike Pasolini, his humanism is complemented and nuanced with his surrealist humor. In his film, a hookah smoker, a leper, a toothless dancer with Death and his orphan – all these are people whose social world of “the untouchables” Cohen treats with his sense of humanity, and with his undeniable feeling for color and a zany, idiosyncratic detail that escapes both Renoir and Pasolini. And whereas Renoir talks about a bride with a husband chosen by her father, in Cohen we see it all – the bride, the ruined childhood, the father and the groom – as witnessed also in his moving photos from his trip to Ethiopia. And again, where the others document and describe the lives of the Indians, Cohen just shoots and records the essence of the Indian spirit expressed in the event of the legendary Kumbh Mela. By comparing Ira Cohen here with his European peers, I want to add that there’s something in favor of Cohen: Ira is a poet and master of contemporary letters, and these facts add to the miracle which was produced in his work. He trusted a 100 percent in the power of the visual. His Mylar photographs are his visual portrayals of people he used to know or did not know, they are speechless, silent, like the deaf parents he grew up with. His documentary, Kumbh Mela, is also silent – bereft of textual explanation it is as non-judgmental as its author –rather a non-judgmental, but critical observation of the world we inhabit, be it in the heart of Africa, Asia or in the midst of his 16-panel Mylar chamber where he was an alchemist, a sort of American Victor Brauner, concocting images out of the mirror-like reflections which emerge from his panels.

II b. October Gallery issue

Five years ago, for his exhibition at the October gallery in London, Ira Cohen chose so-called Mylar and surrealist photographs that were combinations of mimesis and mimicry, assimilation and adaptation of subjects to the semi-abstract forms and floating colors. Cohen studied literature and his observation of the literary world served as the ongoing project. His fascination with this world runs through Ira’s œuvre, though not strictly in a visual sense of the term. Let’s take his portrait of William Burroughs – it is adorned with an image of a cobra in it; it is a diluted Mylar collage which gives us a hint of Burroughs’s strange and idiosyncratic personality. However, In Cohen’s photos, the focus is not on winners and losers, but on forms of togetherness amounting to co-evolution. Central to these comparative observations of forms and colors, is also Cohen’s choice of working not exclusively with black and white photography, but rather with Mylar panels and/or sepia background stills. In doing so, that is, by using Mylar liquid color effects, the artist places another filter between the object and its photographic representation, allowing even for the quotidian to be seen in a new, splashing light. There are portraits of the Living Theater actors which float in front of us, Mary-Mary, then Pamela, followed by his own favorite partners, Petra Vogt and Caroline Gosselin…
In his black-and-white photos, thanks to their stylistic unity, he manages to make supposedly impossible pairings (like the one of a ravished Hans Bellmer doll and his beard) appear reasonable and self-evident. In some cases, as in his black-and-white dual portrait of Carlo Stephanos and myself (circa 1990), individual motifs enter into permanent alliances with other pictures (of a NYC E3rd Street’s mural with the words “freedom now” painted in the background). In some others, like in most of his Mylar photos, these motifs are placed within a succession of contexts.
In one combination, Cohen juxtaposes the face of a rock icon, Jimmy Hendrix, to a floating Mylar sensation of his curly, cloudy hair. What we see in a dialogue here is Jimmy’s fragile face juxtaposed with the structure of his hair as much as the structure of his red gown – these elements come to the fore as well as the slow build-up of Mylar-produced structures of colors. Not only did Cohen’s image combinations change over the years, but also the motifs of his photographs. Whereas initially he focused mainly on liquid, Mylar effect photos thus-producing strange, zoomorphic images of people and things, in the years closer to his death (2011) he increasingly shifted toward surrealist black-and-white settings and portraits. The settings had a message, with a surrealist twist. In the ninth month of my pregnancy, Cohen had staged me and Marc, the father of my baby – in front of a silly Parisian street poster which was entitled “Destiny”. His images increasingly resembled stills from a movie set and this special feeling for a collage, and a theatrical reality was largely picked up from Brion Gysin, that is, from Gysin’s sense for staging sound and light installations. He confided this to me this fact in the summer of 1994.

  1. However, not being a photographer myself, I never felt confident enough to discuss the very technique with which Ira produced his Mylar photos: how he was shaping those already taken images I would not know. The only certainty was my understanding that he fathomed the photographic event as something that could be reproduced (via the negative) or that he himself could even replace that event in the process of developing the image by the unique Mylar treatment of a non-repeatable event on the photo paper. This special treatment of a photograph though, produced a sensation in the viewer that a photograph created through the Mylar chamber was of the sort that was either super-imaginary or infra-real – real on square or phantasmagorical, certainly oneiric. And Ira Cohen himself was exactly like that: infra-real and at the same time oneiric as a person – and phantasmagorical. The intersection of literature and fine art on one side, and life on the other, was Cohen’s ongoing concern. Sometimes he addressed the links between life and its photographic visualization directly, whilst underlining the fact that direct insights into life could not be understood in isolation from the medium of their communication. His photography grants access to our immediate surroundings –it reaches them both as the aesthetic realms and the sites for experimental insight. And it shows that the world around us and the one inside of us are mutually dependent, somewhat shaped by the factors that make out of us simply the parts of a larger whole. This procedure, as such, is an example of the surrealist exercise in the best sense of that word – his art has been an intense, politically determined surrealist lesson in life. I often called his world of images  his own “theater of transcendence”, the theater of the essential human qualities which should neither be qualified as “Eastern” nor as “Western”. It may be seen as global and worldly, but for sure, it is the “theater of transcendence” as it is highly spiritual and cosmic. If we could possibly place such theatre somewhere, we would put it into that “nether” world of Ira Cohen’s Jewish tradition where his portraits appear as DIBUKs or ghosts embodying the souls of his disappeared friends and cousins. These emerged on his Mylar photos under different names and in different forms, but were essentially ancient, Jewish, Hebrew, the way Tadeusz Kantor was with his Cricket theater, or Victor Brauner with his own paintings.. For me, Ira Cohen’s Mylars are the sort of collages or cut-ups  with an esoteric sensitivity coming from Kabbalah, where the floating images drawn from the collective memory of his people spring up and grab us by the heart.

II c.

IRA COHEN: From the Mylar Chamber- (and for the New York Arts magazine)

Retrospective show at October Gallery, London (November 2007-January 2008)


The press release for Ira Cohen’s retrospective of photographs contains a saying by Jimi Hendrix, Ira Cohen’s friend from bygone times « Looking at these pictures is like looking through butterfly wings. »

The major show devoted to this unusual American artist is an exhibition of photographs of « reflected human forms in fluid metamorphosis » created by Cohen in the late 60’s at his Lower East Side loft.

This show of photographs which also mirrors his poetry included in it, very much echoing the author’s very life, that is, the miracle that has never stopped happening, can be compared to a sort of white magic produced by an alchemist who turned his back on establishment and then turned towards God, art and poetry.

Ira Cohen’s life is like a well-kept, illuminated manuscript that consists of many internally and externally sparkling events, mythical voyages and legendary encounters which endows him with the real and also poetic privilege to call each and every important artistic and literary figure of the second half of the 20th century by their first names. The last poem in his book « Poems from the Akashik Record »evokes in an ancient Roman style the poet’s intimate relation to life and poetry, or, rather, an attitude underpinned by the radical freedom of his verse that feeds on the peculiar spontaneity with which he can exclaim : « Farewell Burroughs, Ginsberg, Huncke & Leary too/ we who are about to die salute you…/ Return to that light which once you knew/ before you wrote yourself out of this human zoo. »

Broadly speaking, one can say this recent photo retrospective could be seen as a meaningful dialogue with those ordinary, and less than ordinary people who shook the soul of the 20’s century’s intelligence. As a prolonged dialogue with oneself and with the others, it consists of visual recordings of  highly energized conversations, observations and monologues. Eventually, the photographs could be viewed as one long image which does not allow for further divisions. That’s why some of his books were largely divided into two large sections « Poems » and « Photographs » as if a great deal of subtlety were needed to convince the reader that the photographs were not Ira Cohen’s poems and vice versa.

These photographs were not taken by someone who had a revelation or a prophecy while thinking about the Two World towers to be destroyed soon after. They were taken by an authentic New Yorker who was born with the doom theory up his sleeve and has been seeing too much art, too much life, too much death and too much poverty in a single lifetime and who was at his best while describing the following situation in his book:

« On the 23rd Street waiting for the N train/ a black child sings to his robots/ I am going to see the IRIS prints & then to Soho Guggenheim…/ And now I see that Death will ride the N Train/ to the end of the line/ & for a moment I feel safe as feet pass/ over the blue gratings above Broadway.. » (« Akashi Revelation »)

A true artist always feels safe in the company of numerous other fellow human beings. As a matter of fact, it is his lonely quest for the Holy Grail that places him on a cloud made of dreams, poverty, but also of exceeded humanity. That frozen moment of revelation or epiphany is the only one left to him who has always had a lot to say but did not die young, that is to say, Ira Cohen. Nevertheless, he has left the whole fleet of admirable admirals, great visual artists, talented poetic captains and it seems that these huge Mylar photographs, long one-breath sentences were taken in a sigh and a prayer, quiet meditation of someone who knows, in this selfish age of ours, the true value of friendship. He counted among his friends John McLaughlin, William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Brion Gysin, Jimi Hendrix, Vali Myers and Angus MacLise as well as some other members of « the interzone mob ».

Ira Cohen, a legendary poet, voyager and  ‘raconteur’ has known them all, and has known IT all with them and sometimes that « It » comes across as so overwhelming that we’d rather not even ask what it was ! What I find really fascinating about the photographs in this show is their steady Surrealist pace, autonomous and wild at the same time, but following on the other hand the best Surrealist tradition in this or any other country. We should not forget that Ira Cohen is someone who has showed his photography with Man Ray in Paris.

Cohen is the artistic director of Universal Mutant, Inc., a foundation established with the help of Judith Malina, Gerard Malanga, and Will Swofford in order to promote and protect the work of insulate/occult/alternative writers, filmmakers and interdisciplinary artists. In 2006 Cohen’s Mylar photographs were included in the exhibition « Summer of Love » organized by Tate Liverpool, touring throughout Europe and to the Whitney Museum in New York.



« Poems from the Akashic Record », and for the ABR

( Ira Cohen, « Panther Books », New York, October 2001)

« Poems From the Akashic Record » is a book of poems which also mirrors the photographs  included in it, very much echoing the author’s very life, that is, the miracle that has never stopped happening and can be compared to a sort of white magic produced by an alchemist who turned his back on God and then turned towards art and poetry.

Ira Cohen’s life is like a well-kept, illuminated manuscript that consists of many internally and externally sparkling events, mythical voyages and legendary encounters which endows him with the real and also poetic privilege to call each and every important artistic and literary figure of the second half of the 20th century by their first names. The last printed poem in the book entitled « Hail and Farewell » evokes in an ancient Roman style the poet’s intimate relation to life and poetry, or, rather, an attitude underpinned by the radical freedom of his verse that feeds on the peculiar spontaneity with which he can exclaim : « Farewell Burroughs, Ginsberg, Huncke & Leary too/ we who are about to die salute you…/ Return to that light which once you knew/ before you wrote yourself out of this human zoo. »

Broadly speaking, one can say this recent book of his poetry- alas, he has not had many of them printed along with his peers on the North American continent, could be read as a meaningful dialogue with those ordinary, and less than ordinary people who shook the soul of the 20’s century’s intelligence. As a prolonged dialogue with oneself and with the others, it consists of snippets of  highly energized conversations, observations and monologues. Eventually, the poems could be read as one long piece which does not allow for further divisions. That’s why the book is largely divided into two large sections « Poems » and « Photographs » as if a great deal of subtlety were needed to convince the reader that the photographs were not Ira Cohen’s poems and vice versa. Sometimes, there is a feeling with regards to both of the two artistic forms presented here that we might be mistaking one for another as, for example, in « Quevedo in New York : The Skeleton Key » (« into the dusk of another New York day/ in the doorway waits the ghost/ of Charlie Parker and down West Broadway/ hangs a neon moon ») and « Optical Time Delay »

( « How fast can you download/your free flight mirrors ? / Fasten the seatbelt & enter/the world of darkness forever. »). These lines were not written by someone who had a revelation or a prophecy while thinking about the Two World towers to be destroyed soon after. They were written by an authentic New Yorker who was born with the doom theory up his sleeve and has been seeing too much art, too much life, too much death and too much poverty in a single lifetime and who was at his best (somewhat like  Frank O’Hara) while describing the following situation :

« On the 23rd Street waiting for the N train/ a black child sings to his robots/ I am going to see the IRIS prints & then to SOHO Guggenheim…/ And now I see that Death will ride the N Train/ to the end of the line/ & for a moment I feel safe as feet pass/ over the blue gratings above Broadway.. » (« Akashic Revelation »)

A true poet always feels safe in the company of numerous other fellow human beings. As a matter of fact, it is his lonely quest for the Holy Grail that places him on a cloud made of dreams, poverty, but also of exceeded humanity. That frozen moment of revelation or epiphany is the only one left to him who has always had a lot to say but did not die young, that is to say, Ira Cohen. Nevertheless, he has left the whole fleet of admirable admirals, great visual artists, talented poetic captains and it seems that these long poems in prose, long one-breath sentences were uttered in a sigh and a prayer, quiet meditation of someone who knows, in this selfish age of ours, the true value of friendship. Among these texts, I found particularly captivating poems such as « For Jack Smith » , a great poet/performer and a filmmaker, « a Garuda on the Bardo wing », an « Elegy » for Brion Gysin, a mythical Surrealist American who lived in Paris and made cut-ups as legendary as Duchamp had his ready-mades, and « He Wears the map of Calabria on his face », a poem for Gregory Corso, the emperor of the Beats who has also expired recently.

Ira Cohen, a legendary poet, voyager and  ‘raconteur’ has known them all, and has known IT all with them and sometimes that « It » comes across as so overwhelming that we’d rather not even ask what it was ! After so many a voyage recounted through this book when one comes across  lines such as the following, one knows that Cohen has lived his life full to the brim and that just a small portion of all that experience has ended in a poem :« Must I read the Science Times to know/that the Monarch’s migration/is a fragile journey ?/…Goodbye Elephant Goodbye Whale/Hello Aids Virus/smaller is perhaps stronger after all/ My dreams were bigger than any whale& sometimes I dove even deeper » (End of a Line)

But what I find really fascinating about the « Poems from the Akashic Record » is their steady Surrealist pace, autonomous and wild at the same time, but following on the other hand the best Surrealist tradition in this or any other country. We should not forget that Ira Cohen is someone who has showed his photography with Man Ray in Paris. What I find really sad and even revolting is the fact that his complex and generous poetic voice has always been hushed or inadequately valued because of circumstances in his own native country that seems to suffer from a mild but constant publishers’ flu for decades. Clearly, this latest book of Cohen’s imaginative poems comes in as the best medicine  and antidote to the inanity of the suffering begotten in these insecure times of human folly, grief and oblivion.

Ira Cohen feature

Ira Cohen in conversation with Nina Zivancevic
New York, 2001

Ira Cohen’s life is like a well-kept, illuminated manuscript that consists of many internally and externally sparkling events, mythical voyages and legendary encounters which afford him the real and poetic privilege of calling each and every important artistic and literary figure of the second half of the 20th century by his or her first name. We tried to focus this particular interview not so much on these figures and the particular encounters that Cohen might have had with them but rather on his own poetic and artistic development that has consistently informed his own unique style.

Ira Cohen: It’s nice to be with you here on the 23rd street coming out of Chelsea Hotel, then reading this particular book and eating Japanese sushi —

Nina Zivancevic: Now that we are talking about all these ‘Japanese things’ — what did it mean to you, your trip to Japan?

Oh, it was wonderful: because first of all, to live in America, as an artist, especially if you are not some kind of a maniac, or some bogus academic creature propped by the media, you don’t get too many perks. Ok, you get some perks — perhaps some people’s eyes shine when they hear you read, or through knowing someone like you I meet somebody that I feel belongs to the same world I live in. Yet, being invited to Japan through a friend was just a lovely confirmation of a common bond and an opportunity to shine in another universe.

How was it different? Was the poetry world different?

Oh, I don’t think that I met so many people in their poetry milieu but many old Japanese poets were brought out. I did not meet Kazuo Ohno there but I met him later in New York and he’s a terrific friend, I photographed him, I hugged him, kissed him, went to his performance here. These were outstanding moments. I met a number of good people in Japan who came to my show and when they came they responded in such a terribly Japanese way by taking me somewhere to a special tea ceremony and then they would point out to me ‘You see, a peony that you have at the bottom of your cup is the same peony that the hostess has wearing on her kimono, which is a special thing, like saying a special hello to you’! That was terrific, you know.
Another person who lives in Okinawa and was a publisher invited me to his house many times. He was very gracious in a way that many people have simply forgot in the world we live in! Then, sometimes they would give you a cigarette without asking and you can ask anyone for a cigarette, people smoke there and true friendship, of course, is worth the price anyway. I was saying: Hey, it’s a beautiful camera and he said: do you want this camera? I said: No, I can’t take your camera! And then he was trying to push it on me — but just the idea and that feeling of generosity were special!
Then someone came to see my reading and left a note and a gift — some expensive japanese music that I was interested in. The cost of an LP could vary at that time from $10 to $60 and so it was an expensive gift. In the note that came with it, written in a slightly halting English, one could read ‘Now that I’ve seen your photos I can kill myself’! So, I’m just thinking of certain moments there.
Then, when I went to Okinawa I met with some university professors who invited me for a dinner in a special, very old inn in a traditional style — there was a Japanese woman taking me around, and we were drinking and any time we had another round, any time the glass was empty the duty of the person sitting next to that person was to fill the glass for him. So after a while the atmosphere became a little loose and I’ve heard one of the professors say ‘I have heard that you are the real thing and I can see that you are’!
This would be something unheard of in our society, if someone tried to say something like ‘Ira Cohen is the real thing’ people would immediately try to put you down after that. They always say in America: ‘Have you ever published anything?’ And I say, you see my beard, you think I’m sitting around like a kid saying things?’ Then I would say ‘I’m just a poet’, but I’d never say ‘I’m a poet’, I say ‘I’m a just poet’.


When did you start playing with words? Did your reading of poetry come first, or writing it?

You know that my parents were deaf — my mother was a saint and my father was a frustrated clever man, he was frustrated because he lost his hearing at the age of two and was a serious diabetic. But he had never satisfied some other longing that was in him, I mean, he had a capacity, he was a very smart guy. He told me when I was a kid that he was the only deaf guy in his deaf club with a ‘second emotion’. Anyway, growing up with the deaf parents and the idea that the relationship to communication is very unique sign language — which was a very important first language for me, although I never became a true master of that language except in the sense that Charlie Chaplin could be called a master of sign language, but I learnt the gestures, I learnt the visceral, the words that you’re trying to express, that you become the thing that you’re talking about…

Did this experience give a special dimension to your language?

My father was a wierd deaf person — he was a prankster in language, he liked punning, so a typical thing that I remember is that I liked baseball — then he would spell it out for me and say in his deaf voice, something like ‘baseballology’. He could make up words like that and make a joke like that. The punning came up easily in a sign language. The deaf person could be a man with a thousand faces and I feel relatioship to that. In all the mylar photographs (which I was doing before I started make only photographs), I was directing and playing different roles.

I think that you told me once that you first started writing and then taking photographs.

Yes, maybe. First I did not have a camera, but I was reading a lot — children’s books about dogs and horses, novels about Franky Flyer etc., when I went to college at the age of sixteen I began looking for other books, I went to the library and I saw Franz Kafka’s The Castle. I read the book and I started reading all the books that I could find of Kafka, then I found all the books of Thomas Mann and I read them..

So, that was a lucky incident that you ran into all these great ones!

Oh, my life is full of that — it’s not even lucky incidents, it’s just following the wind where it blows you — one thing leads into another, I mean when you read a lot of books you find that other people get mentioned in the introduction or in the poems, and these are the ones you read next. Although poetry is always more difficult than reading novels or certain other things.

Who was the poet who influenced you the way you said Kafka did, the one you said ‘wow’ when you read him?

When I was fifteen or sixteen I discovered Dylan Thomas, he was on the record so I could hear him read — I say that I used to read his poems out loud to friends and girlfriends — ‘Do not go gentle into that good night, but rage, rage against the dying of the light’, so I started reading my own poems like that but with a different rhythm, but that turned me on to the idea of reading… But there were so many other poets that I loved and was inspired by — I have the ability to read in French and in Spanish, a bit in German…

Yes, you have a penchant for Surrealism…

Yes, I love Apollinaire, but also Spanish poets, old poets such as Gongora or Quevedo, or newer ones —  Lorca, Neruda — they can give you an idea of how great a poet can be in that language. Speaking of my favorite poets such as Lorca and Neruda, you feel that someone like Neruda touches on the sentimental in a way that no one else does, you don’t find that in Dante… And Lorca is so decadent and so romantic and lyrical…

I find a lot of Rilke in your poetry…

Well, perhaps one should not speak of Rilke yet. Nevertheless, I want to say that in the works of the poets I mentioned there’s no ornamentation and that’s what matters in my mind when I sit down to write a poem. Also the essence of what they’re writing about, is deep and touching and meaningful to me. The subject matter is important to poetry — these are just ‘arpeggios’ and other things and that’s one thing that most of all I find lacking in many poets who have the reputation of being good poets.
There are millions of ways to make a poem, to make even good poems, and I know quite a few ways how to make them; these are called ‘tricks of the trade’ — ‘trick’ sounds like a word that one should be ashamed of using, but everybody uses something that you either call a trick or knowledge, and ‘collage’ more than ‘appropriation’ is the word that appeals most to me. ‘Appropriation’ seems ridiculous to me, and I could never understand the poet who uses 40 or 50 words from Ezra Pound’s and ends his poems with those exact words, but I commented to him on what he was saying in those lines — I took it so personally because his poem was dedicated to me and I said ‘those last lines — were those really the lines that you wrote directly to me?’ and then he told me that it was Ezra Pound, and that’s one thing.
But the ‘collage method’ is like there is million sounds and million voices, so the option is that you have a contemporary person who takes things from other sources, Shakespeare did it too, but you have the option to create something as if you were creating an opera, of all different voices which come from over the radio, the TV, from books from snatches, from lines in newspapers, from overheard conversations — I don’t express that as the main thing, but I am open to it, because everything that I use must be something that I’m feeling myself strongly and then I ‘tack it on’ as my sale, as my feelings that I’m having. And I love it all, wherever it comes from: Japan, the Serbian poets that I read in that anthology The Horse Has Six Legs. [Compiled , edited and translated by Charles Simic, Graywolf Press, 1992.] I was amazed how uniformly good I found all those poets and how close they were to my own soul, as compared to a book that I found coming out of the St.Mark’s scene, published in the late sixties where I saw that there was a uniform style, and I was trying to get on it to see what’s really there, and I realized that I just couldn’t care less for the world that all these people were expressing! Even when they got to see it!

So it means that the language of poetry is really universal — it doesn’t have to be limited to someone’s particular experience such as ‘I eat Sushi… and I understand only people who eat Sushi’…

Yes, it’s good to draw what your world is, but just to write poems about what happened while you were making trivial phone calls… I mean, I use stuff like that in my poems but I wouldn’t make that the whole body of the thing. When you finaly boil down certain poems of that style, sometimes there’s very little left in the end once you discarded all the personal references and all the ocassional stuff! I was reading several poems which were just lists of all what I do every day, and the things in them are so mundane. Things that we do every day: a Surrealist would make a rather different list and then it would be true, if it was good, and a challenge to his imagination — one could say like ‘I milk my giraffe in the morning before I have breakfast, then I take a shot of marinated clouds in my syringe, which I inject into my pineal gland’! Oh, I don’t know — I shoot insulin every day, so there is a way to mythologize and fantasize around, if you are a Surrealist, or have a Surrealist tendency, you’d be doing that.
I am neither of those things — I am neither Beat, nor a Surrealist, I am not a Dadaist — I am just Ira Cohen, and I’ve been open to every influence that comes on my horizon and some of these things — depending on how you absorb them — may take over and provide a certain style. Rilke, whom you mentioned earlier, talked about this beautifully in ‘Malte Laurids Brigge’ — he talks about something like taking in these words ‘but you have to let them become yours’.

What comes to you first — words or photographic images, or, in other words, what is the first thing that you grab in order to record something — a pen or a camera?

No, no, feelings are a little bit different; I have to search inside myself for something, I have to be a real pearl-diver to start working with a pen, I mean, it’s like pearl-diving. Photography is like throwing a net in the sea full of fish in a way. I mean there’s a million images everywhere. And it’s just a question of click, click! I mean somewhere along my eye there is, my choice too, but to choose in photography whatever it is, I’m making it work. And I like to photograph the things that are personal to me and sometimes it appeals to my eye but more often, it really appeals to something else in me that is looking for images.
Yeah, I mean if I see something interesting in an image I’ll do it, but sometimes I’ll photograph something in the apartment or just parts of the apartment realizing I put ten things in that space and that I can move one thing over and it’s some kind of collage , rephotographing one photograph of mine together with some other object, say a sea shell or the inside , the core of the sea shell which is like a sector of some piece of science fiction architecture which I got in Mexico when we were together, on the Isla de Mujeres, do you remember that?

Oh, who could forget that trip! But, Ira, you’ve travelled to so many places and also you lived in so many places — what really amazes me is your steady practice of reading and writing that you’ve kept on wherever you went! Could you tell me though, as you lived for longer periods of time in places such as India, Nepal or Morroco — once you landed in that particular place and culture, did you have a habit of reading the respective literary heritage of the country you lived in?

Yes, to a certain degree, but I read a lot of Pausanius while I was living in Nepal. I also read the biography of Lucky Luciano, because certain books turned up there. Reading Pausanius and certain Greek things were very special to me because in a way I though I was living in a world and the century that was not so far from what ancient Greece was. And that all of the temples described there in Greece that had skulls on them – that’s like the Nepali temples! And sacrifice and things like that. It was hard to get certain books there… but somebody came there and gave me the book Poet in New York of Federico Garcia Lorca, of course I loved Lorca and I started looking at the book and I realized that Lorca died when he was 37 or 38, that’s when they killed him, and that I was around 37 or something like that when I got the book, and that if he died a couple of years after I was born, two or three years. Technically, if he hadn’t been killed, he could still be alive and be 76 or 77 years old — I was about 38 years old, which would be almost the same, you know what I mean? So, give or take a year or two I had this model in my mind and as I started reading the poems I thought he could still be alive , I could be the extension,  so I decided in a certain way , I really opened myself up to the spirit of Lorca as if he could come into me so I wrote this poem in unison with Garcia Lorca.
If you write poems, I’m sure you’ve had these experiences in which someone’s spirit suddenly comes into you, or maybe it’s someone you’re addressing the poem to, so I felt that it was what happened there. There was my poem .I wrote that it takes its rhythm and spirit from Edgar Allan Poe, but I’m describing something in my own life – and that was Poe that came into me when I was writing this poem!
And there was a poem that I felt that Dylan Thomas was in me while I was writing it – something like ‘writing a requiem in the absence of eagles’, I can’t remember it but just the whole tone of it and the whole rhetoric and then I though: I could sort of feel that Thomas lived in me when I wrote that poem. There is even a Hebrew word, Cabbalistic Hebrew word for something that I just described: something like being invaded by a dead spirit.

Do you understand Hebrew yourself?

A little bit, when I was young — not as a scholar but as a kid who attended Bar Mitzvahs and things like that… (Ira starts singing a prayer in Hebrew)

Ira, if someone had to tell you: from now on you cannot perform poetry, you just have to write it down, what would you say? How would you react?

I’d say ‘it’s boring’.Because for me the biggest pleasure is reading poems out loud — I started doing that with the poems of Dylan Thomas before I had my own poems to read. And I know that this whole idea of giving poetry readings is something that is associated with something in our time, connected to the Beat movement — that poets get out and read their poems. There were poets like Vachel Lindsay and earlier poets who did that in the 1920s but this is not a typical thing for poets worldwide…Although I think they were doing it in ancient Rome, you know, and I can imagine that in the U.K. – Wordsworth and Coleridge did not necessarily sit around reading to each other, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they did.
I learn something about the poem every time I read it, I get more connected to the poem, I can play different notes on my saxophone when I read it on occasion, especially if the music is accompanying me and it’s good; and takes me into different direction. But if I don’t read a poem out loud, at least to myself — I’ll always do that — or read a poem to someone I’m talking to on the telephone, that’s the way that I see that a poem works.
Because if there’s something wrong with it, I notice it immediately when it goes through my mouth: that the word is an extra word, it’s not quite right — something should be pulled out, or that I am rushed through that part, or whatever. And also, I also build confidence in a new poem that way; I’ve written poems which in the end I think of ‘great’, or ‘very good’ and there’s a couple of poems in a new book which Romy and Foxy are bringing out, and I think when I look at them – they are worth reading!

Let’s take a look at your new book. Are the images, that is, your photos, in Akashic Poems  related to the poems the way they precede or follow the poems?

Yes, there is a relationship — first, they are part of my world — Mikki’s (Maher) name is mentioned in the ‘Dolphin text’, the book is dedicated to Gregory (Corso), there’s a poem written for Gregory by me and Allen Grubard together and there’s a poem for Gregory in the beginning, the text opposite, the Jack Smith is opposite a text written for Jack when he died, and there is some reference point that connects them up — I just chose the pictures and the connection points. Look at Brion Gysin — what’s opposite? — There’s a eulogy for him, and you see the footnote there? I said ‘This was written in Paris for Brion Gysin when I met him in 1961.’ I realized after he died that I’d written his eulogy the day I met him. That’s the kind of magician Brion Gysin was. There’s my mother, Lakshmi, Carolyn…Are they magicians?
I don’t know, if they are shamanic and magical that’s all the best — but I am interested in that power. In the power of transformation, I mean not just in power, I am not Henry Ford! Brion was a charming debonaire — he was an elegant Carry Grant of the underground, I’d like to say, and Jack Smith was the most audacious genius I’ve ever met, transmitting ‘by male fire inspiration to others’, which he did. Each of these people were kings, and magicians if you will.
And there’s my daughter — I could compare her to Kumari if I want to, but she’s my daughter. My mother, who was a saint, a deaf saint, and I have a lot of friends as you know and I could have put other people in here but this is the cast I chose for this book.
I think we talked about a lot of good things, about poetry that is germane. Once Gerard Malanga asked me what I thought was a rather uninteresting set of questions. But to one question I gave a really good answer. I was lucky because I could have fallen into a glib stupidity of my own. When someone says why do you write — what would you say? It is easy to say ‘oh, because of… blah, blah’, but I’d like to give a really good answer, not just a glib answer. So he was asking ‘where does poetry come from?’ So I said I thought of the book by Lawrence Van der Post which is called The Kalahari Bushmen and was about the Kalahari bushmen, or the lost world of the Kalahari, whatever, and it describes the Kalahari bushmen travelling all over the desert. And the way they conduct their whole life is by following lightning and thunder. That’s their whole life. Why? Because wherever lightning goes, water is sure to be found, and they are in the desert. So, if they see lightning down there and they see it in the desert on a probably clear horizon they follow that lightning and then they find water which is life! And I said to him that I would say that the poetry can be found in the same way. That’s how I feel about it. Whenever you follow the lightning, you’ll find a poem there.