Rarely does one enjoy the pleasure of being in the company of legendary people. Lyle Ashton Harris is one such person. His work has pushed boundaries and opened zones of creative agency for a generation of young artists. As a gay man he has experienced the deep traumas of losing friends and lovers to AIDS, and has brought that sadness and awareness of the human condition into his work in a way that communicates across many spectrums. What follows is an edited version of our conversation, #30 in an ongoing series that is part of the Rail’s New Social Environment, a daily lunchtime broadcast in the time of COVID-19.
McKenzie Wark (Rail): Well, Lyle, you’re kind of a legend.
Lyle Ashton Harris: Hi everyone!
Rail: So do you want to tell us a little bit about The Watering Hole in 1996 and why you chose this particular show to introduce us to your work?
Harris: First of all, thank you McKenzie, it’s really a pleasure! I’ve been a fan of your work for many years. In fact, I was thinking while in the shower before this Zoom broadcast [laughs] that the dates for The Watering Hole correspond to your legendary book, I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995-1996, about your correspondence with Kathy [Acker], and that you could speak about that period as much as I can. I decided to open up with The Watering Hole because as many of you probably know through a generous donation by my dear friend and patron Aggie Gund, MoMA acquired it a few years ago. At the time, the critic Vince Aletti told me that he thought it was great that the museum got it, but that it might never see the light of day because of its content. So I’m interested in what’s happened pre-COVID-19 over the last five to ten years in terms of social movements, in terms of cultural institutions feeling the need to somehow—I hate the word “diversify”—but in a way to get more “teethy,“ in terms of the type of image-making or work that they are engaging the public with. So I thought it would be interesting to start with that.