Olivia Laing Thinks Everything is Political

The British writer speaks with GARAGE about her most recent collection of essays, "Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency."

by Olivia Lindsay Aylmer
Apr 12 2020, 7:00am

Olivia Laing is no stranger to writing when it feels like the world’s falling apart. It’s sort of become her M.O. While her 2018 novel Crudo tracked a news cycle on hyperdrive as consumed through social media, her new collection Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, which reaches U.S. shores May 12, is an exercise in slowed down, conscious consumption. Across essays that range in subject from Georgia O’Keefe and Basquiat to Sally Rooney and David Bowie, there’s an intentional distancing from The Here and Now. Art and the people behind it, she affirms through practice, have been around (and will prevail) eons longer than the current chaos. Whether she’s musing on language, blood (menstrual, as paint), the internet, love, power, or portraits, her cultural omnivorousness offers a certain “sustenance,” to borrow an Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick phrase found in the preface. She intends for the collection to act as a portal to the work itself, to “be a bridge to the wild, fertile realm of the museum and the library.”

Against the backdrop of a global health crisis, Laing emails to say she’s shaking off bronchitis in bed. We agree it’s probably safest to correspond digitally this go-round, though she’s quick to clarify that’s not an unusual location. “Like Colette and Patricia Highsmith,” she tells me, “I tend to be a horizontal writer.”

olivia laing funny weather art in an emergency

Funny Weather finds you rejecting the constant churn on display in Crudo in favor of something slower, more reflective and intellectually expansive. Did this shift in speed and vantage point offer any catharsis?
Crudo was definitely cathartic. It’s a very raw book, and it was deliberately written from inside the feelings of anxiety and paranoia generated by both the speed and apocalyptic contents of the news cycle. But I didn’t want to—couldn’t!—live in that headspace forever. I longed for something calmer and more thoughtful. These essays are still very much engaged in processing dark material, but as you say the pace has changed. I think that’s one of the most powerful things about art, actually: its capacity to stop time, so we can examine detail, and to pull back, so we can see the context and connections that are so often occluded in the news.

What prompted your desire to unite many disparate, perhaps otherwise transitory, pieces from across your career in book form?
It really came out of the ‘Funny Weather’ column I was writing for Frieze. I had a very open brief, but I started writing it during the refugee crisis, and so from the very beginning I was using it to think about political events in terms of art. Those years saw seismic changes, most notably Brexit and the election of Trump, and I wrote the column to make sense of them and to process the intense feelings they generated by way of art. It was becoming clear to me that art was a source of clarity, as well as a force of resistance and repair, and that it offered a kind of antidote to the pervasive feelings of anxiety, confusion, and despair that are so much the hallmark of our political moment.

In these politically charged times, it sometimes feels like capital P Politics is saying to capital A Art, “Stay out of it. Stay in your lane.” You seem invested in revealing the blurriness of those boundaries—the ways that while it’s possible to make art that’s not explicitly about politics, it’s impossible to make art outside of politics. What might art and politics have to offer each other?
That’s exactly right: I do think it’s impossible to make art outside of politics. Even art that searches for, in Baudelaire’s lovely phrase, 'Luxe, calme et volupté,’ is inherently political. Capital-P Politics might like to tell us that art is irrelevant, elitist, a luxury, but I think it’s always engaged in how we live our lives, even if it runs counter to our knee-jerk sense of what ‘political art’ might be. As for what art has to offer politics, I think it provides material with which to think, perceive, and react in a new way. Bottom line, I think it expands our sense of the possible, without which, of course, we cannot hope to change the world.

You cover so much ground in Funny Weather, yet seem to be saying over and over again, “Yes. Art still matters. No, really” What has convinced you? Have you found it challenging to uphold this conviction?
No. Art is what feeds me, truly. I put Funny Weather together out of my real, lived experience that these artists, these works, were what was nourishing me, keeping me sane and making me able to imagine a different future. I talk maybe twice in the book about an encounter with the writer John Berger, right at the end of his life. It’s a talismanic encounter, because of the absolute sturdiness of his faith in art as a place where we can enlarge and open, be hospitable to ideas, encounter and befriend the new, the lost and strange. Or take Derek Jarman. When he was diagnosed with AIDS in the late 1980s, he chose to build a magical garden on a shingle beach beside a nuclear power station. Why? What was the point? To make something beautiful and defiant, that endures. Art is part of what sustains us. It shapes how we see the future. It’s a mistake to think it’s separate from political struggle.

Your work, whether fiction or nonfiction, often charts the personal’s relationship to the political—the ways in which our everyday lives and experiences are shaped and shifted by the unpredictability of what’s happening on the international stage. Are the personal and political inextricably intertwined?
I think everything is political. Loneliness is political, female alcoholism is political, gender is political. I could go on! But I also think there is scope for our personal and domestic lives to be a space of resistance. This is such a thread in Funny Weather—the ways in which people have created alternative utopias, domestic idylls, and communities of resistance, from Agnes Martin up a mountain in New Mexico to the many artists who participated in the international activist group ACT UP, the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power.

In the deluge of news, sound bytes, and Hot Takes, have we lost our ability to focus?
I worried a lot when I was on Twitter that I’d lost the ability to concentrate, but I’m here to tell you that it comes back! I’d almost stopped reading novels, and I made a concerted effort to return to them, and especially to 19th century fiction like Dickens and Austen and Eliot, all of them notably political writers, even when their sphere appears to be the domestic. I’d almost forgotten the pleasure of that kind of deep concentration, but it’s still there, for all of us, at any time.

We’ve been in a state of collective unease for what feels like an eternity. Pleasure, delight, comfort: these things seem wholly at odds with the pervasive sense of unsettledness moment to moment. What (if anything) has brought you comfort recently?
Honestly, the thing that makes me feel most comforted is gardening. There are terrifying things happening, but they are also conveyed to us by way of an echo chamber of rumor and paranoia that feeds anxiety. For me, being outside, in the slow, cyclical time of the natural world, and doing something physical, which adds to the world’s store of beauty, feels very consoling.

Your work has been a source of sustenance to readers in recent years. What has writing as a means of processing the world given you?
Pleasure. The act of making a book, taking inchoate and often distressing ideas and producing something orderly and lively and hopefully beautiful out of them, is a source of such deep pleasure. I hate writing most of the time, but that act of creating a finished book makes me keep returning to it.

In a 2019 piece for The Guardian , you discuss your conflicted feelings toward technology—as you say, you were a late adopter to email, laptops, smart phones. Yet you somehow became addicted to Twitter! What’s your relationship like to social media these days?
Ugh, Twitter! Twitter had so many wonderful things about it—it was such a source of friendship and fun, but I found I couldn’t cope with the speed of news, or the confusion and speculation that it generated. I felt like it was my duty as a citizen to be aware, but actually all that vast oncoming wave of information was doing was making me anxious and numb. I wasn’t effective, I wasn’t useful, I just knew a lot and worried even more. This is really the key thing to ask: is the pace of information serving your desire? If you want to resist, is it making you effective as an activist? If you want to think of different ways of living, and move toward them, is it nourishing that or obliterating it?

These days, I take much more information about politics or the news by way of print, so that everything isn’t constantly interrupted by the next apocalyptic headline. As for social media, I’ve whittled it down to Instagram. What can I say? I like pictures of other people’s lives.

olivia laing