The Daily Heller: Criminal Intent, Art About Crime

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Harper Simon, musician, artist, filmmaker and producer, produced and co-wrote Meditations on Crime, an album that features collaborations with Julia Holter (“Heloise”), Gang Gang Dance (“Crime Seed“), King Khan with Marshall Allen and the Sun Ra Arkestra (“We the People of the Myths”), Geneva Jacuzzi (“Nagual“) and more. The album, part of a multimedia collective, coincides with a book of the same title that features artwork and essays by the likes of Cindy Sherman, Nate Lowman, Julian Schnabel, Laurie Anderson, Miranda July, Hooman Majd, Jerry Stahl and MC5’s Wayne Kramer.

Connecting the sonic and visual elements, American artist Raymond Pettibon (renowned for creating classic Black Flag and Sonic Youth album covers and concert posters) created an original portrait of John Dillinger for the album cover.

Meditations on Crime began in 2016 as the confluence of the pop culture obsession with true crime, the incredible legacy of murder ballads and political protest songs as well as what America was going through during that particular election year.

I recently subjected Simon to third degree . . .

This is quite an ambitious fusion of media on a very difficult theme. I was once publisher/art director of an odd magazine called Mobster Times: Crime Does Pay, so I am sympathetic with your response to politics and crime in your first interview in the book. But for purposes of introducing my readers to your project, can you explain its genesis?
I was not familiar with Mobster Times but looking it up it seems that it was started by Al Goldstein, pre-Screw [actually it was during Screw‘s run]. You’ve now reminded me of a dinner I had with him once many years ago around the time he was running for office of some kind. In Florida, I believe. I mainly remember this because I had a T-shirt from the campaign. Anyway, I probably could’ve used some images from the magazine as ephemera in my book, which focuses on the intersection of counterculture and crime, amongst other things. The project, [entitled] Meditations on Crime, comprises an art book with commissioned essays, an album of collaborations with various recording artists that I co-wrote and produced, as well as a short film by the artist Jonah Freeman and myself. In 2016 I had an idea for a collaborative, curated project that would give people an opportunity to express themselves politically if they liked, or to explore the nature of criminality in a more philosophical context.

Raymond Pettibon album cover.

What are the roles of your collaborators in this mashup? And do each see the theme through your eyes or you through theirs?
The visual artists were allowed to respond to the theme by submitting whatever works they wanted to submit. Most gave images from their existing body of work, although a few like Jonah, Aaron Rose and Raymond Pettibon made original pieces for the book. We ended up using Pettibon’s drawing of the bank robber John Dillinger for the album cover as well. The writers were given the same sort of liberty, as long as the essays pertained to “crime” in some way. Same with the songwriters I worked with, some of whom I co-wrote lyrics with and some I did not. So no, I wouldn’t say any saw the theme through my eyes, because I didn’t want to impose that.

Nate Lowman. Anger Management Diptych (Juice and De Kooning’s Marilyn), 2005.

What was the process of getting so many “A-list” artists involved in this? What were their questions and your responses? Did they have a sense of your overall goal?
I don’t really like to think of artists as “A-list” or “B-list.” Everyone gets equal billing on this project. Many of the visual artists were brought in by Jonah, who co-curated the art in the book. The writers and musical collaborators mostly came from me. Most were friends or acquaintances. But yes, there were many artists whose work I’d been a fan of for a long time and I was honored by their participation. Since I pretty much gave everyone total freedom, I don’t recall a lot of questions being asked.

Nate Lowman/ Elliptical machine gun, 2017.

So, speaking of goal, what do you want to impart? What do you want the audience to experience?
This project was less about having a goal or creating agenda-driven work than following a path to see where we’d end up, which became more abstract as one contribution led to another. Although, I’d say, in truth, many of the artists involved shared a similar political viewpoint. These questions you’re asking are good questions but they’re hard to answer succinctly. The subject of what defines criminality and what is the nature of crime is so layered, so complex and steeped in historical context, be it religious or political or dealing with the concept of justice, to call something Meditations on Crime is almost absurd because you could spend a lifetime on it and only scratch the surface. There is crime as it pertains to the laws of any given country. Those laws may or may not be just. The person who decides who is a criminal is the person in power. Then there is the issue of crime as it relates to morality. Also a complicated subject. There are crimes of the heart. There are war crimes. There is also a constant revision in history and in contemporary society as to what comprises criminality and what doesn’t. If you are reading our book or listening to the album you are going to get a lot of interpretations of this subject and hopefully some will resonate and provoke some thought, maybe some indignation, or not. I leave it to the audience to take from it what is useful to them.  

The visual and audio responses are so diverse. What were the terms of inclusion? Was it total freedom, or restricted in any way?
Well, for one, certain things may have been omitted because they seemed too obvious, too on-the-nose. Some contributions were cut because they somehow didn’t match stylistically with the tone of the project as a whole. As more contributions were accumulated, they led naturally to other artists being asked. It’s a fine line to walk with a project this sprawling, because you want diversity but you also need aesthetic cohesion.

Laurie Anderson in collaboration with Mohammed el Gharani. Photos: James Ewing

Imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay from the age of 14, Mohammed el Gharani was tortured and held without trial for seven years. Finally, in 2009 a federal judge dismissed the evidence against Mohammed as insufficient and ordered his release.
Habeas Corpus was installed in October 2015 at The Park Avenue Armory in New York City. It allowed Gharani, who had never visited the United States before and who would never be allowed to set foot in the country going forward, to virtually occupy the space and confront an American audience via telepresence. His body was sculpted from blocks of foam at a scale reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial. His likeness was projected onto the sculpture by way of a live camera feed from West Africa, where he sat in stillness and virtually held court for three days for the duration of the installation, communing with his audience, who themselves were visible to him via a surveillance camera installed in the rafters at The Armory.

There are many curious (in a thoughtful way) interpretations of the theme. Are they what you were expecting? How much did you and your collaborators manage versus allow for serendipity? 
Some were in keeping with what I expected. For instance, Janine Di Giovanni is a renowned foreign correspondent and war reporter, so I wasn’t surprised so much that she gave an essay on war criminals. Other writers gave works of fiction that I would never have expected. The only managing I might have done is if I felt one contributor was coming a little too close to the subject matter of another artist who’d already turned in their work. 

Ben Okri’s essay on the “first crime” is fascinating. He makes crime a defining trait of humankind. Is that something you’re attempting to tackle—how deeply criminal acts are hardwired?
I put that essay as the introduction because I felt it was the kind of thing I wanted to say but would never have been able to write about with such depth of knowledge and eloquence as Ben. He’s a very erudite man with a poetic soul and a great deal of wisdom who really tackled the fundamentals of the topic brilliantly. So I figured, let’s start here and then let the thing fan out.

I felt kind of disturbed when I saw the New York Magazine spread on gang violence. There has always been too much romanticizing crime. Would you agree? (Unless it is civil disobedience for a good reason, that is.)
I suppose I would agree. Wayne Kramer from the MC5, who wrote an essay but didn’t contribute musically, gets into that topic in his piece. But I don’t think there’s too much romanticizing of crime in the book or on the album. Maybe a little. The ephemera of the South Bronx gangs from the ’70s that we included looks quaint, almost sweet, compared to the world we live in now. 

Raymond Pettibon is a strong presence. What does that mean for you?
Well, I was so pleased he made that drawing for us that I of course wanted to use it on the cover, because I grew up with many albums that he did covers for, by bands like Black Flag and Sonic Youth. And much of the guitar playing I do on the record references some of that stuff. I like to think of the record as being in line with that tradition, although there are other songs that are more experimental. I should also point out before I forget that the album and book come together in a box, and also, since this an art and design magazine, that the design was done by Brian Roettinger and Jonny Woods.  

Finally, for now at least, what does crime mean, symbolize or represent to you after working so long on this project?
I still have the same kind of moral outrage I had when I was inspired to start this project in 2016. Our administration has changed but most of the same characters and same issues are still in play. In fact, the landscape is probably more criminal, more obscene. But crime is not topical. It’s fundamental to how we view the world and the unfolding of the human drama. The story of humanity, the story of power and politics is the story of crime.