Paul Zelevansky loves to sing, and it shows in everything he does as a multimedia artist and author. He's able to tease out the music in any medium, whether performing a duet with Bernadette Peters in front of a webcam or bringing words and text into unexpected harmony on the pages of one of his many books.
Born in Brooklyn in 1946, he was a major player at the inception of the artists book movement. A portfolio of drawings earned him entrance to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, where he began to think about nontraditional ways of writing and organizing books. He gained a following early in his career for his large, elaborate book designs, which often played with the relationship between text and image in innovative ways.
Over time he began to integrate more performance into his work, shifting from artists books to shorter essays and narratives and beginning to explore video and puppetry. His website, The Great Blankness, is a menagerie of videos comprising text, images, and sound. He's also made a name for himself as a teacher. He has taught art at several levels, from middle school to college, and in 2015, the International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education awarded him the Distinguished Psychoanalytic Educators Award.
Zelevansky is currently working on two upcoming projects. The first is a reprint of two of his books, Monkey and Man (1987) and 24 Ideas About Pictures (2008), set against each other in a back-to-back edition. The second, Something is Also Something Else, is a “remixed” series of essays—his greatest hits—recycled pieces of his past works spanning the length of his career.
Sitting in a wooden chair at the front of a small coffee shop in Pittsburgh, clad in a dark jacket and an inscrutable expression, he distracts from the babel of espresso machines and chatter in the room with his own kind of quiet intensity, offering up strings of philosophy and anecdotes in equal measure between sips of hot chocolate. Here, he discusses old works, new works, Mister Rogers, and everything in between.
Kyleen Pickering: Looking over your body of work and seeing how much of it has been focused on him, I have to ask: Why Mister Rogers?
Paul Zelevansky: Well, it started in Los Angeles, actually. My wife, Lynn, and I are New Yorkers, but we lived in LA for fourteen years. I have two daughters, and they watched Mister Rogers when they were kids. In the early ’90s I went back to school at Columbia Teachers College to get a doctorate, and I began to research Fred Rogers. I started to see that behind this gentle, gracious man, was very sophisticated and complex thinking. Time has passed since Rogers’ death in 2003, and now that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is no longer on television, he is in danger of becoming a nostalgic figure. It really matters to me that the nature of his thinking and teaching continues, that he doesn’t just become this nice, benign character in a sweater.
Similarly, many of your works, including in your book Monkey and Man, offer lessons for both children and adults. Your forthcoming reprint matches up Monkey and Man and 24 Ideas About Pictures, a text directed toward adults. What kind of audience are you imagining when you’re writing something like that, that has so many layered parts for different people?
Well, Monkey and Man was very particular. It was rhetorically cast in the form of a children’s book. Each story begins with “One day, Monkey and Man…” And they are like many characters in children's literature. They’re seemingly naive or untouched by the world around them, but little by little they are touched and affected and undercut by the world around them.
What got me into it was my experience raising children. When my younger daughter was about nine years old, I started writing the book’s stories and reading them to her, so the language is checked against the language of a child. Fundamentally, the book is about my sense—mostly through watching my own children—of how they learn. I saw that children have this very narrow frame of reference when they’re small, and little by little the world opens up slightly, so it’s not solely about them.
In each story in the book, something happens that the characters aren’t expecting. And every story has a question, “What is the point of this?” in response to something that happens. There’s an instance when one character, the grocer, who is giving them free food—you don’t know why, he just does, it’s part of what makes their world so protected—dies out of the blue. It’s not just that they lost somebody they care about. He was their lifeline to everyday survival, and they have to consider what to do now. They end up getting a job at a burger place, and things keep getting worse and worse—not in a catastrophic sense, not in a violent sense, but in a sense that the world just gets more fragile and dangerous. So it was really trying to understand this notion of how. How do we learn, how do we adapt? How do we grow up?
Monkey and Man came out in 1987, and that was a full book. Some of your newer works are published as individual essays—I know you might have an essay from Something is Also Something Else published as a zine soon, for example. Many of your older works are huge, intricate books with maps and bits that fold out and stamps. How do you feel about this major shift in your work, from limited-edition artist’s books with short runs to smaller publications that could almost be mass-produced?
Until the late 1980s, I was making these big books, and they took a long time to conceive and make. But I always thought that, even though the books I was creating were graphically sophisticated, sometimes beautiful, even, I didn’t care primarily about their aesthetics. I cared about making them, but I really saw them in a literary way, and that’s how I wanted them to be seen by readers—not as artwork but as literature, as visual novels.
Few people, no less literary critics, saw them that way. So I thought, you know what? I did what I wanted to do, in the way I wanted to do it, and I got a lot of attention for it. But I don't know how many people actually read them, even the people who bought them. There was no way to measure what they got out of them. I don't know if they understood what I was trying to get at. And I realized that I didn’t want to do that anymore in quite the same way.
Something is Also Something Else contains mostly your previous work, rewritten—or as you say in the book, remixed. What brought about the idea to do this?
In Something is Also Something Else, everything is recycled. When I was growing up, my father had a family shoe store. I used to work in the store, and before I was allowed to sell shoes, my job was to take new shoes out of the cartons they came in and fit the boxes in the wall. A shoe store, when you think about it, is a bit like a library, because there’s a taxonomy. When shoes go into the wall, they’re divided up into men’s shoes, women’s shoes, dress shoes, sports shoes, and then into sizes and so on.
Of course, there’s the problem of not having enough space, and so you have to do something called shifting stock—moving down things that are taking up the space that you need for the new shoes. It was a way of organizing objects, not only in space but in time. That really interested me.
Years later, when I was an undergraduate working in design class, it hit me that this way of thinking about the organization of objects was a very useful way to think about designing a book or an essay. When I put something together now, I not only think of what's happening on the page, I think about how that’s going to be echoed later.
I thought it was time to do a book like this. It was partly connected to my birthday—I reached a certain age and thought, well, some of these things have already been published, some of them haven't, but it's been over twenty-five years, so what would it mean to put together a remixed book of essays? I went back to things I did twenty years ago, take paragraphs, and rewrite them. The new product that resulted from these remixed words and images provides a different perspective.
All of your works contribute to a discussion about the relationship between text and image. When you’re designing a page layout, do you take pen to paper and lay it out physically, or do you work digitally?
It’s all digital.
Have you always worked digitally?
No, I was cutting and pasting for a long time before working digitally. I miss that part, actually, the cut and paste, the collaging of text and image. One of my books, Shadow Architecture at the Crossroads, is not only technically and literally made up of fragments of texts and images, but also metaphorically. And the fragments are defining not just a story but a place. So it’s really a construction, and it was all done with an X-Acto knife and glue. I miss that, because there was a certain kinetic satisfaction in gluing it down. Now everything is kind of floating.
In Something is Also Something Else, you discuss the ideas behind the book. I was really struck by the word “remixes.” You could have referred to your writing process in image-related terms, like collage or mosaic, or in traditionally literary terms like cut-and-paste—and you do, occasionally—but musical terms are the most prevalent throughout the book. Why is that?
Music is very important to me. It carries a very different hit than either image or language. It gets under your skin in a particular way. It brings up, in very interesting conceptual and psychic, kinetic ways, experiences you had when you were very young or in a certain circumstance, and then it carries all these cultural references in the language. I mean, a remix is a collage, so sometimes I talk about it that way, but something about talking about it as an audio remix for me describes it as even more of a tension, or friction, between elements.
Some images, like clip art, are very unsophisticated things. They pretty much describe what they look like, and that’s why they are useful. Say you’re doing a newsletter and there’s a pie sale. If you stick in a picture of someone eating pie, it’s serving that purpose. But if you take that image and put it in a newsletter that has nothing to do with a pie sale, it’s still someone eating pie, but it stirs up other sets of associations in setting up this conflict between your expectations of what it is, where it is, and what else it could be.
Certain images appear in Something is Also Something Else more than once, and I'm well aware of that. I'm thinking about when they appear, how often they appear, what it means when they reappear, and so forth. It all came out of working at the shoe store, and that organization just making a certain kind of sense to me. I think it’s a way of my wanting to see what the point of it is—if you put this here, what effect does that have on what’s next door?
So I’m very interested in that play of expectations—in a remix, that’s what happens through song. In really old-school hip-hop, you’re getting this riff and that phrase and it’s pulled from something that happened before, but now it’s in this new situation and it has the possibility of meaning more than one thing or creating some sense of friction that changes your perception.
In using words like friction and tension, are you saying that the relationship between words and images is generally antagonistic?
I think it’s a question of what you do with it. Sometimes they illustrate something, sometimes they create tension or friction, and sometimes they become a way to call attention to the experience of reading. In the years I worked on artist’s books, a big part of what they were about, for me, and more importantly for readers, was focusing on what happens on the page.
When you read a conventional book, whatever it’s about, whoever wrote it, however great the writing is, the form is transparent. You don’t think while you’re reading—the form just drops away. But when I worked on artist’s books, I was interested in sort of stopping the certainty of convention and in calling attention to it. There’s a story here, but you’re reading it. You’re sitting here reading it. It's happening on a page.
You can get taken in a lot of directions through following somebody’s language, but generally you move through a piece of writing the way the writer wants you to move. When you put an image inside a text, as I still do in my more recent work, you stop the flow—for however long—of the dominance the writer has through his or her voice.
I try to introduce all these other possible ways of thinking about it, but the general goal is to get the reader to stop and consider their own complicity, not necessarily in the ultimate meaning, but in the experience of reading something.