Monday, November 5, 2012

Joe Brainard Part 2: Interview with Matt Wolf

Joe Brainard, 1964

Matt Wolf is a young New York filmmaker. He has made a documentary about disco producer Arthur Russell and a fictionalized account of the artist David Wojnarowicz. An editor that I know mentioned that Wolf had made a documentary about Joe Brainard. So I wrote to Matt, and we had the following email exchange.

Q: How did you come to know Joe Brainard’s work? Why did you decide to make a film about him?

A: Years ago I was in a bookstore with an artist named Colter Jacobsen, and he recommended the memoir-poem I Remember to me. Immediately as I started reading, I was amazed by the poem, which recounts hundreds of childhood and universal memories. I was struck by the self-deprecating and charming voice of its writer—the artist Joe Brainard. A few weeks later I was looking at my bookshelf, and I realized that somebody had actually bought me a biography of Brainard for my birthday—Ron Padgett’s Joe: A Memoir.

Ron is an acclaimed poet in his own right, and he was also Joe’s longtime close friend. His book loosely mirrors the structure of Joe’s poem, replaying memories from their childhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, up until Joe’s premature death from AIDS in the early 1990s. I was really moved by Ron’s book, and after browsing through the University of Pennsylvania’s audio archives, PennSound, I found some great recordings of Joe reading I Remember. I really wanted to do something with this audio, Joe’s incredible poem, and Ron’s affecting biography. So I made this film, but I didn’t want it to be a conventional biography.

I Remember 
by Joe Brainard

Q: What reading is his voice taken from?

A: The recordings are taken from several readings. One in Calais, Vermont, in 1970; another at St. Mark’s Church in New York in 1971; and a later recording from a Giorno Poetry Systems record that was released in 1974. You can listen to the full recordings online at

Q: Do you have a favorite passage from I Remember?

A: Not really. The accumulation of all the memories and the rhythm of the entire piece are what appeal to me most.

Q: Have you read The Collected Works of Joe Brainard, edited by Ron Padgett?

A: Yes, it’s an amazing collection of writing that gave me an even deeper and warmer impression of Joe than I already had.

Q: Do you relate to his story about being an emerging gay artist in New York City?

A: Definitely. This isn’t the first queer biography I’ve made. I made a film about the avant-garde cellist and disco producer Arthur Russell, and as a college student I made work about the artist David Wojnarowicz. I see Brainard within that shared history of New York queer artists who died prematurely of AIDS. Since I’m only 30, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a queer artist in New York through different eras, particularly the 1970s and 1980s.

Joe Brainard
photo by Wren de Antonio
production still,
I Remember: A Film about Joe Brainard
courtesy The Estate of Joe Brainard

Q: Where is the film being shown?

A: The film is screening in film festivals and at museums. It was commissioned by the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and has since screened around a lot. Coming up, it will be showing at the Liverpool Biennial in the UK and later in the winter at SFMOMA. We also had nice screenings at the Kitchen and the NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 in New York, as well as the gay and lesbian film festivals in Los Angeles and New York.

Q: Do you plan to make other films about Brainard, Padgett, or the New York School of poets?

A: I’d never say never. At the moment, I’m very busy finishing a film that I’ve been making for four years. It’s a feature documentary based on Teenage, a book by the British author Jon Savage. The film, like the book, is a prehistory of the teenager and looks at youth culture before WWII. It should be out early next year.

production still, I Remember: A Film about Joe Brainard
courtesy The Estate of Joe Brainard

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