At its heart, John Pluecker’s work invites their viewers and readers to cross from one world to another. When a human crosses a border, a river, or a language barrier, they carry preconceptions and histories with them into a new world that is not at all what they imagine it to be. As a writer, artist, activist, translator, creator of books and “object poems,” John Pluecker provides bridges between peoples, disciplines, media, histories, and landscapes — bridges that allow us to understand these realities anew, and to see the other (and the other’s histories) as an equally valid form of existence that must be affirmed. Like the writers Pluecker admires who are, as they say, “pushing the boundaries of what writing might mean” — Cecilia Vicuña, Renee Gladman, C. A. Conrad — Pluecker flaunts the imaginary lines “between writing and materials and objects, drawing and performance.”
John Pluecker’s numerous works including Ford Over (2016, Noemi Press), and Hooks, a soon-to-be-released 2019 poetry chapbook. JP is working on a new book of poems called Grin Go Home, inspired structurally by The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene, that ponders “the perils and promise of travel, specifically for gringos — folks coming from the United States or any ‘First World’ country” and just what “home” might mean to those people. Their latest work of translation is Tijuana trans-feminist Sayak Valencia’s Gore Capitalism, which explores how capitalism turns death and violence into commodities not only in Mexico, but also in the developing world and communities of color in the US. The upcoming Lawndale group exhibition citysinging (featuring work from Pleucker’s series The Unsettlements) opens on June 21st at Lawndale Art Center, where Pluecker is currently a resident artist.
On a hot day in May, John Pluecker invited me into their studio at Lawndale, where we discussed traumatic landscapes, colonial legacies, object poems, crossing rivers (or languages), and acts of legislative bad faith.
Byline Houston: Tell me about your involvement in the ACLU’s fight against Texas House Bill 89, which prohibits contractors employed by the state of Texas or state-funded institutions from engaging in boycotts of Israel.
John Pluecker: My involvement began last year when I was doing a translation for the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston. When I got the contract, I saw that they had a new clause that asked contractors to state that, for the terms of the contract, we would not participate in any boycott of the state of Israel. I knew pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to be possible for me to sign that, since I am a supporter of the boycott, and also because I felt like it was an infringement on my First Amendment rights. That law had been passed the year previous in 2017. It was not clear who it applied to — it said “all companies.” Since I’m a freelancer, technically, when I’m invoicing clients, I’m invoicing as a sole proprietorship — i.e., a company.
Then at the end of 2018, I had another invitation to visit a class in the Modern Languages department at UH. And again, I got the same contract. And so I let my friend who had invited me know that I wasn’t going to sign it, and that was added on to the ACLU legal brief.
Recently, a preliminary injunction was issued that stopped enforcement of the law. And then on May 7th, 2019 the Texas state legislature passed a revision to the law [HB 793] that clarifies that it will only be applicable to companies that have contracts of over $100,000 dollars and ten or more employees.
I would say it’s a victory in that folks like myself who are independent artists or writers contracting with the state of Texas won’t have to have that clause in their contract. But both bills passed unanimously in the Texas state legislature, and that is an indication that in Texas there is a lack of understanding about the plight facing the Palestinians. Texas is not unique in this regard, because there are 26 states that have anti-BDS legislation. In fact, even coastal states like New York and California have anti-BDS laws. In a broader sense, what’s troubling is the lack of dialogue about Palestinian issues, and thus we see the importance of taking solidarity actions that raise awareness and to support Palestinian liberation. The victory is bittersweet.
Byline Houston: As a Southern artist, what do you think of the state of the South? Do you think it is accurate to draw political and cultural lines between urban and rural areas, or do you think state progressive politics are more complicated than that?
JP: I definitely think of myself as a Southern artist or writer, as a Texas artist or writer. And that’s important to me, because my family has been in the state for seven generations. I didn’t grow up here, since my parents left in the ’80s when oil collapsed and I moved back 18 years ago. Whether it’s the work I do supporting community organizing locally or language justice work or my artistic and writing work, I always feel grounded in Texas, and really nurtured by southern organizing and justice movements, and also informed by what’s happening in northern Mexico. Texas is where those zones come together.
Byline Houston: Do you think there’s a responsibility of artists to address injustice? Is the personal political?
JP: For me, yes, the personal is definitely political, though I’m not interested in telling other artists and writers what they need to do, or how they should align themselves politically or ideologically or historically. But for myself, I can’t separate my artistic work from my political work, from my writing work, or from my day-to-day living. I think of all of those things happening at the same time. I’m also really conscious of my own position historically. My family is German, Irish and of other European extraction, so it is important to me to recognize my family as settler colonials here in Texas and to grapple publicly with what that means and how those legacies of oppression might be undone.
I think of the work that I’m doing in generational or ancestral terms, as repairing harm that has been done in the past, as a way of taking a stand in the present. I also think about it as establishing some kind of record, a series of marks being made or of work being undertaken to right historical (and contemporary) wrongs. I definitely don’t see this work in heroic terms, because I am constantly failing or coming up short, but it is important to me to leave some kind of mark or record of opposition or dissent for future generations.
Byline Houston: By leaving marks, you’re trying to leave a mark in the viewer’s mind that’s not just historical, but also connects on a personal level?
JP: Yeah, what I’ve been doing in the past year here at Lawndale is a body of work called The Unsettlements. This show here will be the first iteration of The Unsettlements in an exhibition space, and I decided to focus specifically on my father and my relationship with him, and more broadly my relationship with the ancestors on his side of the family. That side of the family is all German-Americans from small towns in East Texas and Central Texas. I’ve ended up digging through the family archive and family stories, listening to my parents and others in my family, and identifying sites of difficult histories, trauma, violence — flash-points where troubling events occurred in Houston or in the region. For me, these pieces — which I call object poems, but others see as sculptures — are an effort to translate the feelings at those sites, the feelings behind the stories, and the lived experience of those places.
So at those sites, I go out and collect objects, take photos and video, walking around slowly, paying attention to the smallest things in these places, what’s been discarded and what’s been left in the landscape or streetscape. I think of these visits to the sites as rituals, an activity that, as Cecilia Vicuña has explained it, attempts to transform reality. What I’m hoping for with this work (and for people who interact with it) is that it becomes a space of reflection, a space to think about difficult histories without necessarily telling people what to think or how to feel — hopefully, transmitting some of the complex feelings that are in my own family, and specifically in this case, my father — as I grapple with the legacies of white supremacy and repression of queerness and other difficult histories.
Byline Houston: Tell me about the upcoming Lawndale exhibit.
JP: There will be the sculptural pieces, object poems, and then there are the photos and the videos — [pulls out book] and now, there’s going to be this book object that I’m in the process of lettering and copying out. I kept a journal throughout the whole year while working on The Unsettlements. There’s a variety of different images and texts — other people’s texts and my own texts — that I’ve culled together over the year. [Shows another book] Now what I’m doing is rewriting, translating from one book to another. I’m copying photos, I’m copying words, I’m copying tweets, I’m copying fragments from other books. What’s most interesting to me is the way that this history came from the stories and the archive, then I moved out with that history to these sites where the particular traumatic moments happened — and then I translated my experiences at the sites into these object poems and into video and photo, and then now I am in the process of translating all of this process, this diligent searching, into this book object.
I want people to not immediately go to, “What happened, what was the trauma?” What I want to do is provide some frameworks for people to think about how to do this kind of ancestral or generational work, to provide one possible approach for how to dig into that. It’s less about me trotting out these stories about my father in ways that would replicate that trauma, or in ways that might trigger him or me or observers; rather, I want to figure out structures and rituals and performances, some work that anyone could do to spend time with their ancestors. All of us carry so many different histories of trauma, of violence, of migration, of so many different things — and everyone’s grappling with that on their own individual terms or in their own families, their own communities. I’ve been trying to figure out how that conversation could become something that happens in public in a way that is careful, gentle, and non-extractive. I want to be mindful not to wrest all of these stories from my father (or from anyone) and then instrumentalize them or exploit them for my own personal ends.
To me this all comes back to translation, because it’s a translation of the feeling from this site of difficult history into an object poem, into a variety of different media, and now into a book, and eventually a performance lecture in July.
Byline Houston: When you translate, you cross over into an area where you realize that both areas — the one you’re coming from and the one you’re going to — are constructs, somewhat fictitious and laden with your own ideas. How important is translation to you, and how do you imagine the idea of crossing?
JP: Often, translators say, “The act of translating taught me how to do all this other work.” Though this can be true, I want to assert that the work of translation is actually enough. I do not do translation in order to do something else. Translation is so undervalued in our society; it is either seen as traitorous or distrusted, or it is seen as something incredibly simple, or now as something a machine can do. In many ways, in my work, I use those same tools of translation. I focus on a discrete amount of materials. I set up my parameters, and then work within those parameters, just like a translator.
My first book Ford Over (Noemi Press, 2016) began with an investigation of the moments when colonial agents in these lands now known as Texas were crossing rivers, specifically thinking about that moment where they were in the water. Looking at their journals, I found that those men — and they were all men — used river crossings as a way to mark time or space, but there was no actual sense of their bodies in the physical act of crossing. A lot of my work is about stopping them or stopping myself in the act of crossing. Whether it’s interpreting or translating language, or whether it’s in this artistic work that crosses from one medium to another, the actual act of crossing is something that creates a space of knowledge production. For me, that’s the key.
JP’s work will be on display at Lawndale’s opening June 21st – August 18th as a part of the 2018/2019 artist studio program exhibition, citysinging curated by Laura August; which will also feature work by Julia Barbosa Landois, and Robert Hodge.