Sometimes you pick up a book not realising the power that lies beneath its cover. Like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, what exactly is in it remains a mystery, but the desire to bask in that light becomes undeniable. Once it’s opened, you keep longing for its contents. That somehow feels close to my experience of being with the beautiful monsters and enchanting freaks Charlie Fox has not only built a world around, but for. And he does so with every means possible. Published in 2017, This Young Monster is a finger-licking good collection of twists and tales of artists who have pushed boundaries and live (on) beyond our mundane lives, such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Harmony Korine, Diane Arbus and Leigh Bowery. In the summer of 2019 Charlie curated exhibitions at Rodeo and Sadie Coles HQ in London, the disturbed twins respectively titled Dracula’s Wedding and My Head Is a Haunted House. Pinning Charlie to a definition as tedious as writer or curator would fail to grasp the shapeshifting qualities he has as a human being and is able to project as a generator of new fantasies.
Nathalie Hartjes: Let’s start with your book This Young Monster. Thank you so much for writing this! I ran into it last year in Berlin then read it early this year after it coincidentally landed on my shelf. And, wow – it felt like a hurricane.
Charlie Fox: Wow!
Nathalie: It was a real ride. You speak a lot about shapeshifting in the book, which you also do as a writer – shifting into all these different modes of writing, taking these different lenses, becoming these different monsters, placing the reader in a different position towards the text.
There is an intimacy in that. It kind of put me in the same space you were, or made it feel like that. What does choosing these different positions mean for you in relation to your readers?
Charlie: That is a major part of writing for me. With writing you can have a kind of intimacy that you can’t have with anything else. It is an intimacy where you’re inside somebody’s head. It’s a telepathic intimacy, almost as if you crawl into somebody’s body and take over their brain. I like to prompt people to have thoughts that they wouldn’t normally have, or put them inside beings – inside a body that they wouldn’t normally inhabit. I want this stuff to be mutant, so I manipulate my voice and what is going on in the work. In this way I can transform into Alice from Wonderland, or try to do a really flat and numb voice when I bring in Diane Arbus. It almost becomes singing, or a distortion device; just like using different costumes or masks are ways to distort – to take these things that are very intimate and very personal and stretch and deform them.
Nathalie: It also seems to deform the book, or the book as medium. You seem to challenge the common idea of what a book should be. That reminds me of the first pages of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in which the protagonist proclaims, ‘it’s not a book, but slander, a gob of spit in the face of art.’ So it’s like picking up a book with a certain expectation but then the book wants to be something else.
Charlie: That’s definitely part of it. The book itself wanted to be a mutant. It became this unstable entity, writhing and thrashing, going through all these transformations. I like fathoming the idea of a book in this way, as if it is a living thing, that it grows fangs at one point, and it changes its gender at another. As soon as I made the decision to take that direction with the writing it really just took over, as though it had its own brain. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is like that: this weird synthesis of all these different materials; the book does these kinds of voice tricks, which have been a really formative influence for me. Now, I don’t see any reason for why things need to adopt one shape; there really isn’t a proper form for anything. It’s always open; something is always vulnerable to having something diabolical done to it. And I like to do that.
Nathalie: There is a sense of elasticity.
I mean, that’s also like the brain, because it’s not really defined, even though it is a material thing. But I am also thinking about how text can go every place that it wants to go and somehow it is the most elastic or expressive medium because of that. Because it’s not bound to a material body, perhaps carried by it, but not bound.
Charlie: I did this project called Heavy Metal Dog (2018). It only existed for a week, because I wanted to test out this idea of making the words mortal, allowing them to die so that you would never be able to see them again. It was as if they would go into the ground or they would be burned. I am very drawn to the idea of making a text that is alive, and then dead.
Nathalie: But you sent it to me before our conversation. So maybe that is the undead version of it? You sent me a haunt?
Charlie: Sure, I can bring it back from the dead whenever I want. I have this relationship to it, that I can still just resurrect it. But it’s only for me.
Nathalie: Where did it live?
Charlie: Well it was on WeTransfer as a link on some website. People could just come and read it for that week.
Nathalie: If it was on WeTransfer, people might have downloaded it, so it might come back to haunt you as well.
Charlie: There could also be pirate versions or doppelgangers that come and feast on me. It could easily come back. But nobody has dared to do that. It’s become like a weird commodity, so people want to keep it secret, and it stays dead. It’s like people don’t want to disturb the body.
Nathalie: It might be in a crypt somewhere, mummified…
Charlie: So far people have been loyal to the ghost, they have let it sleep.
Nathalie: It has a kind of conspiratorial environment around it, like knowing the secret password. Thanks for making me part of the tribe. Rather than a piece of writing, I am tempted to call it just ‘a piece.’ It is rather indescribable. You could call it collage, or something like intertext or intermedia, but it has a level of insecurity as to what it actually is, who is actually authoring it and who possessed you while piecing it together. And the same goes for the psychiatric notes, but I wouldn’t want it explained. I really want to have that uncertainty.
Charlie: I like the fact that they are weird objects, weird creatures, weird things you could stumble into. I wanted to get away from writing stuff down. I just wanted to use this material and let it do whatever it wanted so it could just be this strange mish-mash. For me, writing or reading is a way of making pictures in my head. And these pictures, they move and they have sound. It was a way of getting closer to that, a way of saying: I am just going to give you this strange toxic waste dump of material that you can sift through. From here, time can be really stretched. You can look at that written picture of the highway at night for a long time. You could just stare at the pictures and be stuck in there forever. It’s a kind of purgatory.
Nathalie: There is a lot of loneliness embodied in that picture – and purgatory is such a good word to match that – and something paradoxical about it. By sharing this kind of loneliness, it is actually very intimate.
Charlie: Maybe it is some kind of spell against loneliness – because it is, it is a very lonely piece of work. And it is about isolation. All the time I was working, the noise in my head would be of a stray dog, lost and barking in the rain. There is a kind of sorrow, a deep, bruised loneliness, like deranged people trying to make sense of a horrible world, and how it is to be trapped in your body, which is a horrible experience. [Points at himself] You never get out of this. You’re still in here and everything else is out there. So you try to pull things in, eat things up. There a piece by Sue de Beer in one of the exhibitions I curated. It’s an early green screen work where she is making out with her double. It’s a narcissistic thing, yet there is desire and failure present:, the desire to cross that threshold and eat another person up, and the inability to do so. Or, to put it another way, the desire to get inside another person. And you can never really do it. You can never really fully ooze together, which is both beautiful and sad at the same time.
…it’s a very immediate and sensual gratification. Like if I see a carpark at night with rain puddles and stray garbage – that’s just really hot to me.
Nathalie: It seems that much of your work is about finding the beauty in sadness, or the beauty of the terrible. Do you actually find the kind of ‘neat’ beauty appalling?
Charlie: I find a lot of things just boring. I have a real problem with a lot of environments, like being in a bank and having to deal with the aesthetics of a drab carpet and terrible strip lighting. That actually makes me feel physically sick, because they are designed in order to make you not feel like a person. It is the perfect allegory for this condition of heavy numbness in which you are orchestrated to live. It’s like the excitement a dog can have. I don’t really think I am above that mode of unmediated expression – it’s a very immediate and sensual gratification. Like if I see a carpark at night with rain puddles and stray garbage – that’s just really hot to me. Or the first time I saw stills from A Nightmare on Elm Street, it was really exciting because it promises this other reality. One of the first things you hear as a Western child is the story of Little Red Riding Hood, a tale about a transvestite wolf, and that seems perfectly natural to me. I can see myself going to my neighbourhood park and crawling over the fence and just being in that same woodland. There is no reason in my mind why that shouldn’t be the case. It’s as though this version of reality, which doesn’t include the disturbing stuff, is only held back by a very flimsy force field.
…There is something delusional about thinking you’re in control. Of course you’re not…
Nathalie: Many of the references you pull from are fables and children’s stories. For example, Gremlins – it’s such a teenage movie! It’s all this stuff we are encouraged to indulge in when we are young, and which is meant to scare kids onto the straight and narrow. When we come of age we are expected to kill the fantasy and observe a moral compass, abandon the miraculous.
Charlie: I never felt the need to repress it. There is a certain kind of educational demand that at a certain point you outgrow these ‘teenage’ interests. It’s like police tape is drawn around those stories because they are disturbing. The idea is that you grow up and you have some kind of hold on the world, but that is never really the case. A wolf that can seduce you is really unsettling and maybe people want to believe that that stuff can’t get to you anymore. And of course these stories hold all these symbolisms about seduction and danger. What then about the idea that you might like that? That you might like this beast getting near you, because it would free you from this horror and routine of just being a normal person? There is something delusional about thinking you’re in control. Of course you’re not. These thoughts are still there in your mind and they present themselves to you when you are at your most vulnerable, like in your dreams.
Nathalie: I am wondering about this moment, about twilight, when you’ve just had a nightmare. How do you spend that moment, do you sit with your nightmares?
Charlie: Nightmares come to you in these fractured packages and they enchant the rest of the world after you wake up. Maybe I see something innocuous, like a basketball, and it would remind me of the texture of a witch’s face. This still feeds into the real world. It’s some kind of slime that managed to get under the crack of a door and do something to me.
Nathalie: Ultimately, the essence of these emotions, like being scared, or falling in love, they are very close to one another. As a way to make order of the world they are often positioned as opposites – though at their core is fear and love. Everything is potentially exhilarating.
Charlie: Definitely! I always want the work to be fun and exhilarating, not in a throw-away-silly kind of way. Things that are really exciting, delirious and fun, are often also very scary and you feel sick and strange. This happened the first time I saw one of David Lynch’s films. I was really enjoying it, but I was also terrified, perhaps in part because I was only eleven years old. Still, that to me is the deepest feeling: that mixture of terror and delight.
Nathalie: I am also curious about the dialogue that exists between you and all the artists you write about. With all these references – and there are so many, which is why I called it a hurricane – it’s impossible to assume that a reader would have a familiarity with the majority of them. Is that important to you?
Charlie: The monster book is indeed very dense with references. Some people hate it and begrudge finding out about stuff that they didn’t know about. For others, it can be a bizarre educational thing. A friend texted me saying that her eight-year-old son was going through a monster phase, which she was concerned about, and told me I had actually written a parenting book. For a teenager it could be a self-help book, and then it also doubles as a distorted history book; it’s all of this.
It wasn’t consciously trying to bombard people with all this content – it’s just how my mind works, like parallel universes bleeding into each other. I think it’s a product of the current climate: we are exposed to and able to consume so many things. In Stranger Things, for example, it’s like ‘Hey, there is the clock from Back to the Future, and there is a nod to Gremlins, and there is Terminator.’ It’s similar to how art is assembled nowadays; it’s all Frankenstein’s monster, just with different quotations and tributes.
Nathalie: I had this fantasy of you writing in your room, with a hipster Frankenstein monster making a drip coffee and being snotty about it, and Dracula on the foot of your bed going through comic books, and Glinda the Good Witch reading old 70s porn, and this idea, like, this guy just lives with all these creatures.
Charlie: Yeah, yeah, yeah, they are all my friends, and I truly love them in a deep hardcore way. I don’t have a kind of critical distance, I want to have it close to me and to take a bite out of it. I consider that stuff like royalty. One of the important things with the book is that it is not a book about art. It’s a fairy tale, really, about these characters. These creatures who take things too far, or who have extreme things happen to them. And they are either cursed and banished from the world, or they are able to make some kind of paradise where they can exist. The work endeavours to be that kind of paradise; it’s a place where you can feel at home, made from a landscape of things that I love.
Nathalie: It seems to me you are evoking a world where all these freaks and weirdos and monsters can live, and by creating that world you are presenting it as a starting point, instead of something outside the ordinary. It’s like you are the caretaker, creating the conditions for a place where you want to live.
Charlie: It’s definitely like that. The exhibition is pretty straightforward about that in its title My Head Is a Haunted House. It is a kind of home and the experience is actually weirdly peaceful. Like walking in this strange foggy memory of an environment on opiates. It’s unsettling maybe, but it’s not horrifying. I didn´t want to make a straightforward shock experience, like a haunted mansion ride, where you can get out and you are safe again. You leave the haunted house with some kind of memory of something traumatic, but also like falling in love. It turns the idea of the normal home back into something strange. You see this with Diane Arbus’ pictures all of the time. She makes everything in the frame look strange. She can make a sofa, like a perfectly normal suburban couch, look like some weird monstrous corpse.
Nathalie: Isn’t home the ultimate scary place, because we are expected to find the most comfort in it? So this ultimate promise also makes that journey very perilous.
Charlie: And even if you achieve it, it could be shattered at any time. In the end, what you call home is the stuff you carry around in your head – everything that makes you feel at home, rather than a place. It’s the artworks that explain how you are feeling to you, which almost act as these strange medicines that live with you. That is really what home is: the collection of external and uninhabitable things in which you ironically find yourself.
Nathalie: As opposed to the writing, where you can manipulate these creatures that are already there, how did working with actual people with their own desires and needs shift things for you?
Charlie: It was really fun working with other people. I felt this kind of deep thrill. It didn’t necessarily feel that different, as it is still the construction of a particular kind of space. In writing it feels alive within the sentence, and in exhibition making the aliveness appears in the physical space. I like collaboration, because you can get even more lost in the mischief. it’s like a game.
Nathalie: Like you can one-up each other?
Charlie: It’s like having these ideas and you just need to puke them out.
Nathalie: I was thinking about this vomit idea. Somewhere you use the phrase ‘fantastical regurgitation’ and the mutant vomits glitter. The notion of regurgitation feels very present when reading your book: all these people, all these images, all these references. But then it also feels like a song. I was wondering, is it vomit, or is it love for which glitter feels very appropriate?
Charlie: It is something I refer to a lot. This throwing up, to drive these thoughts out of your brain and into the world; it’s the same. And also it just looks and sounds amazing. One of my favourite pieces of merchandise ever are the T-shirts Ryan McGinley made when he had a show at Agnes B. They have photos of his friends throwing up on them, and it looks like they have fireworks bursting out of their mouths. I feel a connection between this image and what I do – this process of feeding on these pre-existing materials and distorting them into something new. Like taking the idea of the werewolf and chewing it up with this, and then combining it with neon lights and slime and hip-hop bass and then puking it back out in another form. Regurgitation is a very powerful metaphor for how it feels to me.
Nathalie: Which makes me think about the Garbage Pail Kids, the kind of gory rip off, or parody of these dolls that were really big in the 80s in North America, the Cabbage Patch kids, this very Christian collection of baby dolls, but then reimagined as trading cards with limbs sawed off and snot and puke coming out of their orifices.
Charlie: When I was young I was really into gore. There is something comforting about seeing the body misbehave. Gore kind of reveals what is inside there, how it works. A lot of people behave like they don’t have a body, like the way society is wired up right now encourages you not to think about having a body. You don’t have to touch anything if you don’t want to, like you don’t even have to handle money if you need to pay for something.
Nathalie: Like your body is supposed to be as invisible as possible?
Charlie: But because there are a number of things wrong with my body, I never feel as though I have the luxury of having that. I shake all the time, and my feet are flat. And I walk in a particularly strange way, and I have a lazy eye. Police have stopped me, because they have thought I was on drugs. I am always very aware of being in a body. So as a kid it was very powerful to me, to see bodies transformed into this different condition. It was magical to read tales of transformation, like The Joker in Batman turning his scars into this amazing clown character. It was liberating seeing all these figures that had something wrong with their bodies and turning it into something powerful. Like, ‘Fuck you, I don’t need to come to your party, I can deal with my own trauma and make it into something wonderful and neon and exciting.’
Nathalie: It’s all about transformation. Or, you also like to call it shapeshifting. It seems that it is that particular moment of transformation, or the fact that transformation occurred that generates the beauty.
Charlie: That’s exactly what it is. I love transformation, and I love the fact that you might be able to escape the body that you have, and that there is some kind of fantastical deranging power about it, which is really hot. All this is about being in love and craving some kind of transformation.
As a child I was really disappointed when I found out that I wouldn’t ever transform into an animal; I was convinced that would happen. So there is also a kind of melancholy that haunts me, but I need to embrace that some of those things would never happen. So maybe this work is some kind of revenge. I can make it so it does happen. It’s an act of revenge, a sweet licking of lips, hot revenge.