Seph Rodney Interview

This interview is part of “Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Art Publishing: Conversation with Dushko Petrovich,” a series of conversations led by Dushko Petrovich about the tensions and processes of art publication, speaking to the parties involved with, and implicated by, Steven Nelson’s two-part Hyperallergic essay of June 2018.

Dushko Petrovich: Hi Seph, thanks so much for talking to me. Could you start out by telling me your role in editing Steven Nelson’s piece for Hyperallergic? When did you get involved, and how did things proceed?

Seph Rodney: I got involved relatively early on in the process. At some point, Hyperallergic editor-in-chief Hrag Vartanian sent me an email that Steven Nelson had this piece that was going to be relatively hefty. In the email Hrag sent me, he said, “this is an important piece and I’d like you to handle it,” because Steven and I have worked together before on projects. I interviewed him about the paucity of black people in the professoriat within art history.

Because of my relatively long professional relationship with Steven, Hrag thought that I would be good to take on this project. I am also someone who writes a good deal about issues of representation, race, and gender, and how those issues get refracted through the art scene. Does that answer your question?

Petrovich: Sure, and I also want to talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts, you know? So, Hrag sends you this email and then you contact Steven Nelson, and then Steven sends you the original piece, or the piece as it had been edited by the other publications? What did you start working with?

Rodney: Right. Hrag’s email contained the essay that Steven Nelson originally wrote for Aperture, and on top of that, there was another essay detailing how this entire piece got to this stage where it is. So I got this two-part thing. I had to figure out how to edit it down for clarity, and to make sure that we didn’t have any dangling bits, anything that was unclear. I read through it and I didn’t have a lot to do. I mean, I had a lot of thinking to do, certainly, but I mostly tracked down some of the hyperlinks, hyperlinked names or hyperlinked issues.

Petrovich: Yes, hyperlinked ideas or parts of the piece that are referring to some other thing.

Rodney: Precisely—I had to chase those down. From what I recall, there wasn’t a lot of editing to do. Steven Nelson is a good writer, and most of it was clear. There were a couple of terms or phrases that I felt were not the best, so I changed those. Then we had a long conversation about images because we clearly weren’t going to get any images from Deana Lawson or from her gallery, and finding other sources for them was going to be difficult.

Steven suggested that we just have holes where the images should be, and initially, I didn’t want to do that. I initially thought, “Well, I don’t really know that that’s going to look appropriate.” I suggested an alternative, which was finding images of Lawson’s work in the public domain. Then I thought about it more and thought, “Well, why don’t I just try out Steven’s idea?” Then I did, and I really liked the way it looked. The tactic worked quite well with the substance of his argument, which is that there is a hole left in the discourse if artists are too empowered, or too able to control all of what is said about their work. Clearly Deana Lawson can’t control all of what is said about her work, but there is this degree of control she attempted to exercise around the Time photographs taken after the Dylann Roof massacre. I think Steven Nelson rightly identified that as important to her entire practice. She and her gallery apparently resisted that connection.

That may have something to do with the market: the perception that work made within the critical fine art category and commercial work constitute two very different approaches to subject matter, to intimacy, to all the aspects of Lawson’s work that we can talk about. To be honest, I am still not convinced that that kind of separation between commercial work and fine art work is either necessary or sensible. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

When I got this article and read through it, I thought, “This is exactly the kind of thing that Hyperallergic should be doing.” This kind of piece is a third rail for art practice and art discourse. It gets at the push and pull between the forces engaged with producing conversation around someone’s work. The big players are galleries, clearly, artists, and art historians/critics. This won’t come as a surprise to readers, but as a critic, I firmly believe that until we prove ourselves wrong we deserve the benefit of the doubt. I think most critics subscribe to the belief that what we offer the discourse is a kind of fine-tuned attention. We want to talk about things that are really important, that are worth talking about. That focused attention cannot and should not be curtailed or limited by what may be good for someone’s market practices, or what may be palatable for an artist. Those concerns should have nothing to do with what Steven is doing or what I’m doing, or what other critics acting in good faith are doing.

Petrovich: I have a question for you, editor to editor. One of the wrinkles of this situation is that Steven wrote the piece initially for a monograph, and I think everyone would agree that an artist would have a right to say, “I don’t want that piece in my monograph.” An artist working on a monograph doesn’t even need to give a reason why, you know?

Rodney: Right.

Petrovich: It’s their prerogative. But then the piece shifted to frieze. frieze issued that statement after Hyperallergic published Steven’s piece—the statement said they simply have this policy of not taking seconds, right? They don’t publish pieces that weren’t initially pitched to them.

Rodney: Right.

Petrovich: Steven brings up these very important issues about galleries pressuring publications and withholding image rights and all of that, and I think that’s a crucial conversation for us to have. But for me, there’s a funny glitch: the initial piece was written for a monograph, which has a very different editorial purview than a periodical. Then at the second go-around, frieze issues the statement that they didn’t take it simply because they found out it had been pitched somewhere else. What are your thoughts about that, and how it lines up with the overall argument of the piece?

Rodney: Well, I don’t have any qualms with frieze’s editorial policies. To be completely honest, it sounds a little bit like they’re just saying that after the fact. I would like to have someone, an investigative journalist with some research chops, to actually go through the past two years of their issues and see whether it’s actually the case that frieze doesn’t accept previously pitched pieces, but for the moment let’s just say that is the case and that it’s true. Fine, but the magazine is probably missing out, because the piece that Steven Nelson ultimately published with us gets at very key issues being worked out as we speak in the art scene. They missed out on that. So their editorial policy is really up to them but, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Petrovich: I talked to Anastasia Karpova Tinari, the director of the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, and she basically said her job is to protect Deana Lawson’s wishes, and that’s what she’s doing. But she also pointed out that Hyperallergic had not in fact approached Rhona Hoffman Gallery for image rights. It sounds like you had already come up with the strategy of printing the gaps, the missing boxes first.

Rodney: To be entirely honest, it didn’t even cross my mind to contact Rhona Hoffman, because Steven had already done that. He had already approached them. As an editor, I am in the position of asking whether I’m going to approach them again. Clearly, the response isn’t going to be “Yeah sure, no problem.” Clearly, they’re not interested.

I’d have to go to them essentially deceitfully and not mention that I’m working on this thing, and I’d say, “Oh, can I just have some images,” you know, “we are working on this piece?” That didn’t feel right. So it didn’t even cross my mind to approach them. Again, once Steven came up with that idea for having these outlines, these blank spaces where the images would otherwise be, it went well with the thesis of his essay. So, I understand that that would be a question, but that’s the answer.

Petrovich: That makes sense. What I had imagined is that you had already set up an idea for how to illustrate the piece, so at that point, it’s kind of a foregone conclusion. You wouldn’t even necessarily want those images—

Rodney: No, I would want them. I would. I just didn’t think that they were going to be publishable.

Petrovich: Right. The other process-related question I wanted to ask you was how you felt working on a piece where Steven talks about the whole process. There were these other editors involved, and in Steven’s description, the editors themselves seem happy with the piece, but they’re working in this system where they don’t have the final say. They’re lower-ranking editors, and because the Aperture book is a monograph, Deana Lawson decides what she wants in the book. Then, at frieze, there is this policy about not taking pieces that were given to other publications. People don’t talk about this very much, but that’s part of why I wanted to ask you about it. In your shoes, I suppose I would have been aware of the—I’m trying to think of the right geological term—the tectonics of the piece. By the time you arrived at the piece, it had already been reviewed by two other editors that are in an analogous position to yours—a staff editor, not an editor-in-chief. You’re working with this material that they have gone through, and they likely have some sort of connection to the piece. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Rodney: Until you just posed the question, I hadn’t thought about it, to be honest. As an editor, I tend not to do that kind of meta-thinking about pieces I’m working on. What’s really important is the work that’s in front of me on the computer screen, making sure that it’s clear and that its arguments are sound, that the evidence through which the assertions or claims are made is verifiable, is logical. That’s most of what I care about. I’m more aware of the tectonics of the art scene: relationships with other editors, other journals and magazines, and galleries. I am not concerned about that in the least because I fundamentally believe in what Steven’s piece is saying. I think it’s honest, I think it’s forthright, and frankly, I want to work at a publication where we take the chance to not be on someone’s good side because we are telling the truth.

Petrovich: Yes, there’s the famous dictum attributed to George Orwell: “Journalism is publishing things that other people don’t want to see in print; the rest is public relations.”

Rodney: Right. Exactly. I do not want to do PR.

Petrovich: One of the reasons I asked you the tectonics question is that in the piece itself, Steven brings up what the other editors thought, right? One said it was brilliant—

Rodney: One person said they thought it was very interesting.

Petrovich: Right. Did Hyperallergic ask those editors about publishing their emails? Steven has a right to publish emails that were sent to him, but it presents a gray area in terms of editor-author confidentiality.

Rodney: That’s a good question. After the piece was published, Hrag mentioned that people from frieze had reached out to him and expressed, let’s call it dismay, at having some of that correspondence published in the piece. From both a legal and an ethical point of view, I had no problem with it, because Steven related only descriptors that had to do with the work. There wasn’t anything personal in it. He related what the correspondence indicated were initial feelings about the essay.

Petrovich: He wasn’t publishing their complaints about their boss, or something like that.

Rodney: Exactly.

Petrovich: That makes sense. Well, do you feel you have anything else to add to the questions I’ve asked?

Rodney: I just want to say that I’m glad you’re doing this. This kind of conversation is really useful for everybody involved. I like when things that are sort of invisible come to light. It’s important to talk about the role of critics, editors, and artists in this creation of work and discourse, so I’m glad you’re doing this.

Petrovich: Thank you for talking to me and for being a part of it.


For Dushko Petrovich’s interview with Nick Chapin, Director of Publishing at Frieze, and Jennifer Higgie, Editorial Director of frieze and Frieze Masters, click here; to return to the main page of “Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Art Publishing: Conversations with Dushko Petrovich,” click here.

Seph Rodney is a staff writer and editor for Hyperallergic.

A founding editor of Paper MonumentDushko Petrovich is Chair of the New Arts Journalism Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.