Like many who practice the dark art of criticism, Chris Kraus started out doing something else first. Before publishing autobiographical quasi-novels like I Love Dick (1997) and Aliens & Anorexia (2000), and before receiving the College Art Association’s Frank Jewett Mather Award for Art Criticism in 2008, Kraus was a filmmaker.
Her early writing mentions the film work, but as a failed endeavor. The Kraus-not-Kraus protagonist of Aliens & Anorexia haunts the European Film Market in Berlin, unsuccessfully hawking Gravity and Grace, a feature titled after Simone Weil’s posthumous book and starring two eponymous New Zealander prostitutes. I Love Dick circles back to the same episode: “I tried my best but it still failed. No Rotterdam, no Sundance, no Berlin . . .”
For those familiar with Kraus only through her writing—a heady amalgam of theory, fiction, and criticism—the film years sound like a brief, humiliating prelude to a successful writing career. And yet here is the oeuvre at Real Fine Arts: more than a dozen years and three and a half hours of carefully crafted work, exhibited in its near-entirety.
Even in this context, however, the films are framed by her writing. An essay/press release written by Kraus describes them as “experimental, DIY, personal, poetic, abject”; “delirious, dreamy, romantic, paradoxical, fraught.” What remains then is the question of whether they’re any good. (Discounting the fact that contemporary criticism supposedly eschews judgment—and yet practices it in de facto form all the time. We love Kraus-the-critic because she’s interesting, not a self-appointed oracle, like Clement Greenberg.)
Suspending evaluation for a moment, I’ll point out instead how closely aligned the films are with writing. The first one, In Order to Pass (1982), is a 30-minute meditation: very Maya Deren, Nan Goldin, with a bit of Dan Graham’s Homes for America and fragments of illuminated green text, filmed from the screen of an electric typewriter. In The Golden Bowl or Repression (1984/88), inspired partly by the Henry James novel, you can feel the hangover of ’70s New York: bankruptcy, dereliction, Patti Smith punk-poetry; images of empty rooms and silent people not connecting, even when they’re having sex.
Kraus really found her voice, however—both in film and later as a writer—in her association with Sylvère Lotringer, the French theory–promoting Columbia intellectual and onetime husband with whom she still co-edits the independent
press Semiotext(e). Moving from poetry to theory—or from poet’s poets like Rimbaud to theorist’s poets, like Antonin Artaud—gave Kraus’s work a rigor that distances it from more ponderous, sophomorically romantic ’80s art.
Foolproof Illusion (1986) features Artaud translator David Rattray and a segment with Kraus in a blond wig and black brassiere, building a snow-something on location in Saugerties, New York. How to Shoot a Crime (1987), made with Lotringer, virtually spells out the argument made by Lotringer’s Sorbonne adviser Roland Barthes in S/Z: that literary narrative snares the reader through a system of codes. Only here, it’s done in filmic form, with a police videographer describing how to construct evidence videos so that viewers (in his case, jurors) actually look forward to seeing a corpse.
By the time Kraus made Gravity and Grace (1996), which is being screened every day at 4 p.m. at RFA, her film chops were at their height. And yet the movie serves in many ways as a swan song—or a renunciation. Filmed in New York and her native New Zealand, it follows Gravity and Grace through their sexcapades, association with a millennialist group, and beyond. (The current show opened, appropriately, on May 21, another day slated for final judgment and global end.)
In its pacing and conceit, Gravity and Grace is not unlike Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995). Yet Kraus’s discomfort with the three-act narrative-feature is conspicuous. Critique slides into camp: Godard-like texts flash up, announcing, “Feelings Are Shit.” Gravity complains to Grace about another character: “All he talks about is his past. And besides, the stories don’t even add up. I mean, how could he have written the Situationist manifesto with Guy Debord if he was living with Paul Bowles in Tangiers?”
The movie ends with a hilarious cameo of Kraus as a New Museum curator, berating the young Gravity (turned artist) with theory-speak: “You had a chance to make an explicit feminist critique in your work, but you don’t address the politics of representation.” Gravity’s failure, according to the imperious curator, is that “the sublime has always been on the side of shit,” but “frankly, your work just isn’t shitty enough.”
So what about the shitty film career of Chris Kraus? Or, more accurately, the one abandoned for criticism? “These films have nothing to do with me now,” she writes in the essay/press release, distancing herself from them. “Their exhibition comes too late to feel like a vindication. Nevertheless it’s a pleasure—an abstract affirmation of a practice I’m no longer involved in but will never recant.”
More telling is the setup of the retrospective itself. Given Kraus’s stature as a writer, and the savage humor, intelligence, and ingenuity (yes, there’s some judgment for you) of the film work, it could’ve appeared at P.S.1, at the very least. (Although Laurel Nakadate’s vapid, titillating faux-feminism is what they’re championing at the moment.) Instead, it’s mounted in a small gallery run by artists Tyler Dobson and Ben Morgan-Cleveland, a kind of ’90s Berlin-outpost enterprise—or, as an earlier RFA reviewer wrote, Alan Belcher and Peter Nagy’s conceptually driven, post-media Nature Morte Gallery in the East Village, circa 1982.
But it’s a perfect pairing, not only in light of Kraus’s post-punk roots, but also because it gives the films another level of credibility. Showing them at RFA taps into that hardest-to-access art economy, where younger artists validate older ones, and visa versa. And Kraus knows better than almost anyone the critical value of DIY spaces, having profiled, in Where Art Belongs (2011), L.A.’s Tiny Creatures, a kind of non-artist/artist-space that showcased pan-creatives like Ariel Pink.
Her failure then is a partial fiction. Kraus’s experimental work was screened and reviewed in the ’80s and ’90s, and she got funding for a feature-length film. She didn’t become Kathryn Bigelow, the former Lotringer student and collaborator who won an Academy Award for The Hurt Locker (2008), but it’s hard to imagine her in that context. Kraus is better in the art world, where failure can be theorized, as well as dramatized—or, in her case, used as a springboard for success.