The Daily Heller: Penalty-Carding Transgression
Siglio Press, an independent publisher of conceptual art, sometimes with political themes, has teamed up with British-born artist Richard Kraft to produce his first political artist book-cum-experience. Kraft, who resolved to never normalize the Trump presidency, began assigning Trump colored penalty cards, like a soccer referee. It was an obsessive, if sobering, exercise in data-art visualization. Over the course of the presidential term, Kraft scoured the news and Trump’s Twitter feed, notating each transgression (and creating new colors for ever-escalating acts of misconduct). This was a durational work of art, a daily reckoning, a bulwark against forgetting and an unrelenting visual and textual record of Trump’s four ignominious years in office. Kraft issued nearly 10,000 cards to Trump (in addition to almost a thousand to others—teal for acts of resistance, and dark blue “fuck you as you go” cards for people fired or who resigned from the administration).
“It Is What It Is”: All the Cards Issued to Donald Trump, January 2017–January 2021 is a five-volume slipcased set of artist’s books (1,622 pages) with page after page of ever-mutating grids that evoke abstract paintings, musical notation, even the processing of digital information, as the frequency and egregiousness of Trump’s transgressions increased. (Half the cards were issued in 2020 alone.)
The grids are followed by extensive textual notes (over 500,000 words total), which offer a kind of minute-by-minute, day-to-day account of the daily assault by Trump and company. Publication is scheduled for the fall, it will include Kraft’s introduction, in which he discusses the influence of John Cage (Kraft co-edited Diary: How to Improve the World), the exaltation of the futile, the impulse to turn the toxic into something beautiful, as well as the process of the project.
I asked Kraft to guide us even deeper into this claustrophobic rabbit hole of appalling behavior.
First, congratulations on receiving a 2021 Guggenheim award. It must have been a real joy to accept it during the same year that Donald Trump was trumped by democracy. How do you feel now?
Thank you, Steve! The Guggenheim came as a wonderful surprise. I received an email with the news not long after Trump left office, and it added to the euphoria I was already feeling. Aside from the fact that Trump’s departure offered a glimmer of hope for the nation and world, I was personally very relieved that my project was coming to an end. That said, my elation was, sadly, fairly short-lived. I have real concerns over the longterm effects of Trump’s presidency. We’re seeing it now in the assault on voting rights, in the brazen hypocrisy of many Republicans, and the utter disregard for verifiable facts, to name just a few things.
Trump had such a polarizing impact on too many of us. What was your reason for not hiding your head in the sand, as many did?
I can definitely understand the impulse to turn away. One of the reasons I undertook this project was because I knew it would require me to look, to listen, to really pay attention to what was going on, no matter how ugly it became. I have always had what I consider a healthy suspicion of those in power, but Trump represented a different order of magnitude. The morning after he was elected, I resolved that I would not let his racism, his xenophobia, his misogyny, his dishonesty, his assault on common decency, go unrecorded.
What inspired you to use the soccer card symbolism for cataloging as art Trump’s litany of transgressions?
I’d long imagined using soccer referee cards to make a work, to register, in a slightly humorous way, the things I think deserve to be called out (when they very often go unnoticed or face no consequences). There’s something funny to me about the gesture of brandishing such cards outside the context of the soccer field. In this case, no matter how many cards Trump received, they have had absolutely no effect—this kind of futility is very much a reflection of the world as it often is—yet the act of assigning them gave me an outlet of sorts as his offenses became more and more egregious. I was also interested in the way that the cards would accumulate as a kind of text, a record, a reading (made up simply of colored rectangles) of Trump’s presidency.
What gave you the stamina to continue your chronicle for four entire years? And would you have continued if he had indeed returned after 2020?
Some days were pretty tough, particularly in the last year, but I never considered giving up. Bertolt Brecht said, “When crimes begin to pile up, they become invisible.” People like Trump rely on us becoming exhausted and turning away, and when that happens, the offenses disappear. I was determined not to allow that to happen, and fortunately there were many others who felt the same way. I’m in awe of the journalists who were in the trenches every day, who withstood constant attacks and who persisted in creating an astonishing record of an aberrant presidency. I was also sustained by the nature of the work itself, the transformation of something repellant into something beautiful. And I was driven by my curiosity to see a finished piece that, in key ways, was not simply the product of my imagination. I had no idea how these cards would accumulate, how that accumulation would read and look. In answer to the last part of your question, I dreaded having to continue for another four years, and I really prevaricated over what I would do if Trump was reelected. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make that decision, but I hope I would have found it in me to keep going.
Other than the emotional response (horror on the one hand, and guilty pleasure on the other), what do you feel now that this project is (let's hope) complete?
I really hope it is complete. In my darker moments, I can imagine Trump running again in 2024, and given the divided nature of the country, who knows what might happen. It’s hard to believe I’m saying this. Who would have thought that a man such as Trump—a person who brags about assaulting women, to take just one example from a litany of possibilities—could ever assume a position of prominence and power? As an immigrant, I've always seen the U.S. as a beacon of hope, however flawed it might be. So now, I suppose, the overarching feeling that I have is sadness, that the U.S. has sunk so low.
When you see the result of your art now, can you compare it to any other protest art of the past? Do you, in fact, see it as polemical activism or expressionism, or is there some other way of describing what you've created?
As I worked, history paintings were very much in mind, and I came to think of this project as an extension of that: a visual rendition of a time and place. It certainly originates as a sustained act of resistance, but I strove for the textual annotations to be as neutral as possible, without subjective commentary. The project is also linked to conceptual and durational art, and I hope that, in addition to being a record of Trump’s presidency—a repudiation of the man and what he stands for—that it has labyrinthine qualities, visually and conceptually, that sustain an extended engagement with it.
How does this series of “artist books” relate to other works you’ve done?
This is the most overtly political work I’ve made, and perhaps in some ways, the most deadpan. Much of my work is subversive and seeks to question and undermine established ways of seeing and thinking, often through acts of appropriation, alteration and juxtaposition. Those works—whether artist's books, films, large-scale collages, etc.—often have ambiguity at their core, as I am always interested in multiplicity and the ways in which contradictory ideas can coexist. But in this case, I was driven by something not at all ambiguous: a powerful sense of outrage, and also fear. I wanted to stare down, not turn away, from something that really frightened me.
I see what you’ve produced as data points used to create an artistic entity. (There is a curious connection to W.E.B. Du Bois’ recently uncovered data visualizations about race in the U.S.) How would you like it to be perceived by the viewer?
I love those works by W.E.B. Du Bois, both for their political power and the beauty with which really important factual information is delivered. I hope It Is What It Is shares some of that beauty and power. I also hope that the reader will not only find—in the visual landscape of the work as well as in its textual minutiae—that their shock and outrage is renewed, but also lose themselves in the mysterious phenomenon that awful truths can be represented and revealed in visually beautiful and compelling ways.
How would you wish the work to be “used”? In other words, is it OK to appreciate or consume as pure propaganda? Or is there another level?
I guess that depends on how you define propaganda. The piece certainly has a bias: It originates in a subjective evaluation of Trump as a truly awful human being and sees much of what he says and does as transgressions against commonly accepted standards of behavior. But the textual annotations describing each card are facts, and I deliver them as neutrally as possible. They record his lies, his misguided actions, his profound insecurity and his disdain for the other. The text is, at times, an almost hour-by-hour account (sometimes even minute-by-minute) which, in its accumulations, tells us a great deal not only about Trump, but about ourselves, what we become inured to, what we easily forget, what still shocks us.
The cards, I hope, have a different effect on the reader. While each card represents a single transgression and has a specific meaning, they are also abstractions—ever-mutating grids shifting in color and rhythms—which can suggest many other things: music, perhaps; shifting landscapes; geological strata; the digital processing of tiny bytes of data.
My ambition is for the piece to be multilayered and offer many entry points. But the look of the piece and its content are also inextricable, and the acts of reading both, I hope, inform the other. Of course, I can’t control how people engage with it, but perhaps a person who initially approaches it as something to read for its literal information will find themselves compelled by the visual beauty of the cards, and vice versa.
Is there more you want to say in a political way that demands attention?
I’m really concerned, not just about the U.S., but also the proliferation of autocrats and manufactured “truths” all around the world. It seems to me that we’re on the cusp of something quite dangerous in all kinds of ways. I wish I could say that I’m optimistic about the choices we will make—it seems so obvious—but the rhetoric, the anger and the cowardice of many who are in a position to influence these decisions doesn’t bode well. On the other hand, this piece has hundreds of cards (in teal) awarded for all kinds of acts of resistance. That does give me hope. And as we really must continue to fight, it seems important to not lose sight of that.