A Conversation with James Hoff

by Jonah Max

published April 17, 2015

Over the past decade, the New York-based conceptual artist James Hoff has distributed his work as paintings, LPs, cufflinks, used hard drives, and ringtones; he's inserted it into book covers and printed it onto slipmats. The speed with which this work spreads across platforms and genres often means that it escapes easy definition or hasty categorization—exercises that Hoff himself frequently seems to be examining or complicating. Most recently, however, Hoff's practice has been centered around the creative potential of computer viruses, releasing Blaster on PAN Records in 2014—an album of dancehall-style electronic drumbeats which have had their binary data altered by the eponymous Blaster worm, creating a record that hovers between glitch techno, EDM, and noise. But again, when discussing his work, classification always seems to fall short. Hoff has also brought his interest in viruses to the realm of abstract art with his Skywiper and Stuxnet series. In these series Hoff corrupts digital images of aluminum surfaces with the viruses and then, through a process called dye sublimation, registers those corrupted images upon the original surfaces themselves. His recent work also includes the Syndrome series in which the names of a popular social syndrome—Stockholm for example—are inscribed beneath an otherwise abstract painting. Apart from his studio practice, Hoff is the cofounder of the publishers Primary Information with curator Miriam Katzeff and No Input Books with artist Danny Snelson.

Brown hosted Hoff last month at Interrupt3—a three-day forum chiefly concerned with digitally mediated language art. Initially intending to give a more traditional artist's talk, Hoff changed his mind and ended up performing his most recent virus sound work, "Operation Olympic Games," commissioned by Deutschland Radio. He transformed the conference stage into a dance floor and used the overhead projection to stage a text-based performance by Danny Snelson.


The College Hill Independent: While you came to Interrupt3 to perform recent sound works as a musician, your artistic work encompasses a number of other media and practices—writing, artist books, visual art, performance, publishing. Maybe we could talk a little about how and perhaps why your work has expanded across all of these platforms?

James Hoff: It can be summed up with one word: impatience. I've always had a hard time sticking to script and working across platforms allows me to tackle the same idea from different angles; a sort-of chipping away through different media. Art, generally speaking, is open to this cross-pollination and unlike other disciplines, music or writing for example, it has been expanded enough to engulf a range of practices. My work is usually motivated by ideas rather than aesthetics (which are important to me but come later in the process) and so after an idea has been worked out I can begin plugging it in to different modes to determine what will work best. In the last few years, I've been working with computer viruses as generative tools and that's allowed me work through the same concept in painting and sound simultaneously, which has been fun. 


The Indy: Thinking about the virus pieces, it’s interesting to hear you say that your work is primarily motivated by ideas rather than aesthetics since there seems to be a great deal of attention paid to how those works are received and circulated as objects. For example, after you performed at Interrupt3, a fairly academic conference, I saw you perform a very similar work at a noise show in Boston, not to mention the fact that I’ve heard that it’s become popular with EDM and experimental music crowds—your work’s ability to move across these disparate communities doesn’t seem accidental. Perhaps we could talk about interest in this sort of circulation and how you went about achieving it with Blaster and the more recent virus works.

JH: The virus work, in particular, gives me a lot of room for moving between genres—the ultimate aim for this work is to insert the computer virus into pre-existing genre forms or to introduce digital viruses to offline networks through identifiable cultural forms. Computer viruses are typically hiding in plain sight and are often disguised as recognizable media online so part of the challenge of this project was using the virus as a generative tool to create work that was fluent with offline media and predetermined musical types. I come out of a noise background and I wanted Blaster to speak to that but also to move beyond that community, into a beat driven or dance frame. The virus is already linked to dance music so it was an easy starting point, but beyond that I've also created works that could be identified as new age music, musique concrète and modern classical. Music travels so well, even accidentally, so it's a great medium for viral works. While I have emphasized the virus as the starting point for the work, I'm happiest when people appreciate the music without knowing its conceptual DNA, when it's considered just another song to dance to, or make out to, or do the dishes to--whatever it is that people like to do while listening to music.


The Indy: It’s interesting to see the virus works travel as abstract paintings as well. As you said, music can circulate very effectively and in perhaps unexpected patterns, but paintings, on the other hand, particularly abstract paintings, seem to exist on what I imagine to be a very tired, predictable circuit—existing either in a rarefied art market of galleries, museums, and private collections or as the ubiquitous art of waiting rooms and lobbies. Are you interested in having the virus works “infect" either of these worlds? 

JH: Yeah it's sort of hard to accidentally see an abstract painting, though I agree, they are ubiquitous; sort of the elevator music of our times. However, in those spaces lies a great opportunity for producing interesting work for a captive audience. In this way, someone like Nicolas Slominsky has been an inspiration. When he wasn't busy creating the jingle or compiling popular musical invectives, he was forming the Boston Chamber Orchestra and conducting Varèse at Carnegie Hall. Experimental approaches and popular form (the so called high and low cultures) need not be mutually exclusive in my opinion and quite often it is only the contextualizing cultural space that separates the two. My paintings are directly engaged with the gallery world, but I'd love it if my work found its way into waiting rooms and lobbies--or any non-space for that matter. I like the idea of waiting for the dentist next to a virus like Stuxnet or Skywiper. In many ways, it's an ideal space. 


The Indy: Right, and maybe it’s obvious but I think it might be worth mentioning that it feels like your use of mass cultural spaces like doctors' offices or dance halls is quite distinct from earlier, maybe more “traditional” conceptual gestures—like the artist Joseph Kosuth buying ad space in the New York Times or Artforum—where, despite the piece’s democratic distribution, its real reception still takes place in an elite art world. With Blaster and the virus paintings, the works really seem to be received by and function in these diverse markets much like any other cultural object. So I’m sort of curious to hear if you feel at odds with these earlier conceptual practices.

JH: I don't feel at odds with them but more in dialogue. I think Dan Graham is a good example of someone who sought out public media space across a range of venues: from Harper’s Bazaar to neighborhood weeklies to pornographic magazines. This approach, which dovetails nicely with pioneering artists' books of that time, was influential for me when I began formulating ideas around my work and its movement through the world; through networks, etcetera. Mel Chin's project “In the Name of the Place” with Melrose Place, in which he placed contemporary and experimental artwork by his peers onto its sets, was also another revelation for me because of its ‘hiding-in-plain-site’ approach. Graham’s work sought a pedestrian or public space but also drew attention to itself as art. Chin's work on the other hand sought a more congruous relationship to the media form and that media form's traditional audience. In this way it was far more subversive. The aim of my work follows this path into cultural non-sites, spaces in which media is already present but often overlooked. 


The Indy: While we’re talking about these networks of distribution, I’m interested to hear if and how these ideas are complemented or complicated by your work with Miriam Katzeff at Primary Information and Danny Snelson at No Input Books. There’s a temptation to say that your publishing work is an enactment of your conceptual artistic practices, but so much of your art already feels “enacted" I sort of suspect that that’s inaccurate. 

JH: The short answer: it's complicated. Both of those publishing projects are different in the objectives. No Input was definitely a project that stemmed from my and Danny's creative work and Primary Information is more of something that is its own thing—a non-profit that is larger than its founders with a board and several employees. While I wouldn't say that Primary Information is an enactment of my practice, I can say that much of my interest in distribution systems and its relationship to art making and/or exhibiting comes from the history of artists' books. Much of my education in this regard came from working at Printed Matter, which is also where the idea for Primary Information was born. 

So they are all connected though I tend to think of Primary Information as being a backdrop to what I do now rather than an extension of my studio practice. I've always believed that artists should give back to their creative communities. Publishing allows me to do that while continuing to learn and work directly with other artists. 


The Indy: Right, it does seem as though artist books are one medium around which your publishing and studio practices converge. I’m just thinking now about your recent artist’s book Everybody’s Pixelated. It seems as though you’re at once redistributing a textual artifact —something you do quite a bit of at Primary Information—and using it as a vehicle to transport this MicroSD card that contains a password—which seems to resonate with some of your work surrounding viruses. I’d love to hear you talk about artist books for a moment—using Everybody’s Pixelated as an example, the work does seem to propose both an embrace and a criticism of the form and its limits. There’s something of a history of people criticizing artist books and art publications for being “coded” or abstruse—something you seem to toy with here.

JH: My aim in that work was very specific, namely to use the book as a carrier device for the digital password dictionary embedded in the back cover. . . I wanted to call into question our expectations of what we, the audience, want from a book—that hidden meaning—as it parallels, or is undermined by, the unconscious narrative of a digital key or password. Passwords not only protect our digital lives from outsiders, the word/number/letter choices themselves are usually inscribed with a backstory. I had some work a few years back that centered on Everybody's Pixillated’s author, Russel Arundel, and had always wanted to get this delightful book on the doodle back in print. It made sense here since it was one of, if not the first, full book devoted to studying and analyzing the doodle through the lens of personality and the subconscious. Plus it's a fun read, which I guess you can't say about all artists' books, though the good ones, I'm thinking here of something like Douglas Huebler's Secrets or Lutz Bacher's Do You Love Me? can be a real page turners. I think the artist book seeks a specific and democratic form but I don't believe it needs to be democratic in its address and I always welcomed the potential abstruseness of its content. I wandered into Printed Matter as a kid and was completely overwhelmed and confused by what was unfolding in front of me. It was in many ways like waking up with Foreign Accent Syndrome—everything was the same but something was off.


The Indy: Right, Foreign Accent Syndrome. One aspect I’ve always found very intriguing about your work with syndromes, and something I know you’ve mentioned before, is your interest in psychosomatic syndromes where the name functions as both a descriptor of the syndrome and as its distributor—that is, you can only get Shrinking Penis Syndrome if you’ve heard its name. I’m interested to hear if you feel any resonance between this idea and some of the work you’ve done around viruses—for example, the way in which the aluminum backing of the virus paintings acts as both a support for the piece and the piece itself.

JH: In many ways the syndrome work led directly to the virus work. I was always fascinated by the names of syndromes and how their often-improvised naming system could function as a generator of (and a delivery apparatus for) an illness. The syndrome paintings were made by literally pairing illnesses with abstract, painterly gestures on the canvas in an image/caption relationship and this work also allowed me to use the canvas as a delivery device/distribution point for the illnesses themselves. Computer viruses were a natural next step in some ways because they are made up of writing (code) and they travel through our digital communication system--illnesses always seem to find a way to travel through our communication and distribution networks. The computer virus opened up a different set of tools in the studio but ultimately allowed me to distribute a virus via the picture plane under the nose and guise of contemporary abstraction. Both works sought lyrical expression and aesthetic realization through illnesses that reside within networked communication (both offline and online) rather than normal tools of communication.


The Indy: I know that when you performed at Interrupt3 you mentioned the piece was something of a work in progress for Deutschland Radio, and I’m always curious to hear if you have any other works that are yet to be completed or remain unfinished for one reason or another.

JH: I just finished the Deutschland Radio works and they have just aired. I head back into the studio to begin a new record later this month and I have a few new painting shows coming up including one at the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans in the fall. There are some other series in the works, but it's unfortunately too early to discuss them.