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From Nightclub Artist to Graphic Journalist: Molly Crabapple on Her Life’s Work

Drawing LGBTQ activists and Guantanamo prisoners, Molly Crabapple has a lot to say about art, power and journalism.

(Image: Harper)

Drawing sex workers, drawing prisoners and drawing blood, graphic journalist Molly Crabapple has a lot to say about art, power and journalism. A former art-school dropout, Crabapple has worked in Guantánamo Bay, Abu Dhabi’s migrant labor camps and with rebels in Syria. She describes many of those experiences in her new, illustrated memoir, Drawing Blood.

In this interview, she talks about “oppositional defiance disorder” (it’s “just another way of saying you were born to be a journalist”); the right to see and draw – historically, a male preserve; how “naked girl work” made her a better artist; how Western governments are helping ISIS; and how the whole world fears female muchness.

Crabapple’s a contributing editor for Vice and has written for publications including The New York Times, The Paris Review and Vanity Fair. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

You can watch her appearance on “The Laura Flanders Show” here, and get yourself a copy of her book, just out, from Harpers.

Molly Crabapple: I’m so honored to be here.

Laura Flanders: Well, we’re really happy to have you too.

It’s quite a journey, from school dropout to a permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

Though I have to say, there is something about having a protest poster in the Museum of Modern Art that feels like, I don’t know, a butterfly pinned dead to a wall.

Well, we can get into that, but first, you have a lot of truth-telling that goes on in this book; you describe your childhood as something you would like to set a match to and burn up. Were there stories that you find hard to tell?

The thing I find hardest about a memoir is that it’s not just your life; it’s other people’s lives. Every time you write, it feels [like] a betrayal of the memory of others. I think the hardest thing for me was fact-checking it and going over all my past emails, speaking to my past friends, realizing what a jerk I had been in various moments. That, even more than reliving any sort of past pain – the idea of doing others wrong was the hardest part about it.

At the age of 12, you say, you were diagnosed with “oppositional defiance disorder,” which I think turned out to be very important in your life, so I want you to speak to some other 12-year-old out there who maybe people told she has this same condition. How important and useful has it been to you?

Oppositional defiant disorder is just another way of saying you were born to be a journalist, as far as I’m concerned. It means that you have no natural respect for authority. And God, shouldn’t that be the human condition, right?

I agree. In terms of your process though, it has been a fascinating story, your life really changed in 2007, 2008, with the financial crisis and Occupy. But before that you supported yourself in lots of different ways; one of them was you decided to, or you found yourself working in what you call “naked girl work”?

“Naked girl work.”

And you write beautifully about both sort of the societal attitude towards that kind of work and the way that you came to grips with it and made peace with it. Talk a bit about that story.

I worked as a rather low-end naked model, the kind of legal end of the sex industry, I would call it. I would pose for amateur photographers but the job was really a lot more like being a sort of private stripper where the camera was their excuse. The camera was their way of sort of seeing themselves as, you know, an elevated artistic gentleman. This was the only [way] that I could see, as a 19-year-old with no real skills, to make $100 an hour. It was the only way to escape the grind that consumes so many people.

The grind of going to an exhausting low-paid job, getting home too tired to do your art and then repeating it over and over again until you’ve given 20 years to something else that you never wanted to do. It was slightly – somewhat – dangerous work I would say. Because whenever you work in the sex industry, even in the legal end, you’ve given up your “good white girl” privilege, you’ve given up any notion that society is going to protect you. But by the same token, I would rather burn that sort of false patriarchal privilege and get to live life on my own terms than I would, you know, cling to that sort of idea.

Yeah, and yet you’re figuring out – you’re writing about, talking about drawing as objectifying, you are looking, you are paying attention, you are drawing, but you’re also an object for other people, looking …

Yes, yes.

How did you think about that?

I think that working on all aspects of your field is the best thing to do, right? You have so many journalists, for instance, who might cover the police beat but they’ve never been arrested in their life. You have so many journalists who cover the smuggling routes in Europe now, but they never would have been smuggled. If you don’t know both sides, I don’t think that you can speak truly about them. And also – art is always objectifying, even the best art, and I don’t even mean that in a bad way. There’s been so much talk about the male gaze in art, but very often I think that it’s just the artist’s gaze, and that we think of it as the male gaze because women were banned from looking.

Say more about that. What do you mean?

The idea that you have the right to see someone else. The right to take them and reduce them to a two-dimensional object that’s yours, that’s a reinterpretation of them. The right to break down all the lines of their face and the lines of their personality. That’s something that historically only men have had the right to do. In the Renaissance, women were banned from drawing nude models. Women were kept from doing so many aspects of visual art, I mean, kept by laws, kept by institutions, and so they weren’t allowed to have that gaze. So it got seen as something that only men had but in reality it’s something that humans have.

Do you say somewhere in there that glamour was originally a word for witchcraft?

Exactly, yes.

That was news to me.

Glamour historically was a spell that you would put on something that would make it look like something other than it was, so you could take a book and put a glamour on it and make it look like it was gold and then someone would spend lots of money on it, get it home and realize it was just paper.

Well to illustrate the point that you just made, you did do a report for Vice on police harassment of sex workers; let’s take a quick look. Do you want to set it up at all, [and] we’ll play a clip?

Of course, I’d love that.

You want to talk a little bit about what went into it, and then we’ll take a little look at it?

Last winter, I spent a lot of time in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, researching these things called human trafficking intervention courts. These are courts where women who are arrested for sex work are put through that are supposed to offer social services. But the thing is that they’re quite an ironic thing because the arrests are still the same. These are still arrests – very often of trans women, almost entirely of Black and Latina women; there are some Chinese immigrant women as well – that are brutal, that often involve sexual abuse by the police, or verbal harassment, or money being stolen. That are often not based on any actual sex work being done but just sort of on racist or transphobic profiling, that involve women being handcuffed or being locked in a cage, and then after these women go [through] this incredibly traumatic and degrading thing. Then they’re hauled before a court and a judge saying, “Oh, we’re going to fix you; we’re going to assign you to five weeks of counseling; we’re here to help!”

That should do it …

Yeah, that should do it. The courts are ridiculous for sex workers, obviously. They’re also ridiculous for trafficking victims. Because you’d think if you were someone who was trafficked, the first thing you might need, right, is emergency housing to get away from your trafficker. You might need a source of income; you might need help with immigration; you might need protection from your trafficker, and these things are not on offer from the court; all that’s on offer from the court is five or six sessions of counseling.

Let’s take a look.

Thanks to Vice and Fusion for that reporting. You did another video on solitary confinement. Let’s take a look at that.

We’ll put more information and links at our website. We’ve also played some of your work around mass incarceration that accompanied an interview that we did with Bryan Stevenson. Amazing work. But this isn’t what you were doing 10 years ago.

No, 10 years ago, I was part of the burlesque and nightlife scene.

One of the most exaggerated moments of that scene in maybe a century was in 2007 and 2008. Tell us a little bit about your life at The Box.

In 2007, when I was 24 years old, I got the job as the staff artist for The Box. This meant that most nights, I was sitting on the steps of what at the time was the iconic nightclub of New York’s boom years and I was drawing. And The Box was a very interesting place because it was both a celebration and a condemnation at once. It was like class war in the form of a nightclub. It was a place where the guys that were destroying our economy would blow through $10,000 a night on champagne, but it was also a place where all my broke performer friends would do acts that were elaborate and cruel mockeries of them. So it was like Weimar Berlin; it was all that tension and angst and desire all fueled all into one place. I found it – I was obsessed with it. And I found that what I learned, drawing there, about power but also about drawing really fast in the dark, would serve me very, very well for journalism later.

You write in the book about the relationship between bodies and money, and it reminded me of an interview that we did recently with Zillah Eisenstein, the feminist, who talked about the relationship between capital and bodies. Bodies and labor make wealth, therefore the wealth has a race and a gender, and we shouldn’t pretend that it doesn’t. You talked about how in that moment, people thought that they had freed capital from all of that, from any relationship to bodies, and yet here they are this kind of –

– this celebration of the body! Well that was the delusion, right? That we could take all of the dirty, factory parts of capitalism, and stick them in China somewhere and not have to look at them, and here we could deal with some sort of economy, some sort of capitalism of pure math. And oh, what a lie that was.

And 2007 totally changed all that, for you, for your work, all of it. How so?

It was actually a moment in 2010 that actually changed all that. I was in London and I was doing murals for The Box’s club in London. This construction site, covered in dust. You’re basically working alongside construction workers but because of weird class things, you’re considered to be somehow better than them even though you’re all just working on a building together. And outside, London was rioting.

At that time, the Tories and the Lib Dems were trying to pass through these brutal tuition raises that would have basically destroyed one of the main routes of class mobility in Britain. The idea that university would be affordable. And students were not having it. Students were taking to the streets; they were protesting. They smashed up the headquarters at Millbank, which was beautiful. They were making their voices heard in the most creative ways and at great, great personal risk and there I was balanced on a ladder painting a nightclub all day.

And it was this real moment where I though, “Which side am I on? What am I doing?” And at the same time, that was the time I met the journalist Laurie Penny who really helped inspire me to go into journalism. It’s a beautiful story and that work that you did then, and we should say, Laurie was a regular correspondent for this program in those years.

That work brought you into Occupy, from Occupy you end up going to Guantánamo, Syria. We just did a piece with Laurie Anderson, not so long ago, in an art collaboration with a former Guantánamo detainee telepresenced in, Mohammed el-Gharani, who was one of the youngest detainees. And I was so struck by how much Americans who visited the show wanted to communicate with him, wanted to, they wanted to close the distance. And you write about that too. How did going there affect you? It was traumatizing obviously, but you talk about that distance closing.

I went to Guantánamo twice in 2013. One to document the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed hearings, and the next time to be on their Potemkin tour of the prison. Guantánamo is an atrocity but it is the most American sort of atrocity. Everything [when] you’re there, and I think this is why it was so traumatic for you if you’re American, will remind you of your Americanness. This is a place that is running an extrajudicial prison that tortured hundreds of people that also has a gift shop and a karaoke bar and a sense of profound, profound self-satisfaction. This is a place where guards guard the entrance to the prison next to a sign where they can rate their spiritual health from 1 to 5. It is cheerful; it is self-satisfied; it is profoundly ignorant about the rest of the world. It’s obsessed with its security and feels itself constantly victimized. It is American.

I was doing a profile the first time on this young French-Algerian man named Nabil Hadjarab who was picked up in Afghanistan and held without charges for 13 years. He had been tortured; at that time he was hunger striking and being force-fed, which is a brutal, demeaning and extremely painful procedure. And when he was finally released, even though he had been in France since he was an infant, he was just chucked out in Algeria one day with no apologies. After they had attempted to pressure him into signing something saying that he was a terrorist all along, which is what they do to everyone.

And when he was let out, after a few weeks, he wrote to me. He wrote to me on Gmail and he wrote this witty, optimistic letter about sort of what he hoped for his life, about how much he had enjoyed my article. And it just struck me – look – these are these people that we have so dehumanized. I mean they put hoods over their heads, right, they try to censor what their faces look like. They want to make these people into boogeymen in orange jumpsuits, into blanks that we can project everything on. And here he was and he was just a guy.

And now you’re collaborating with refugees – or with people who don’t want to be refugees – in Syria. What were you hearing this fall as the attacks on Paris played out?

I’m terrified for my friends who are Syrian; I’m terrified that these attacks, which were deliberately designed by ISIS to convince Europe to shut their doors to refugees – I’m terrified that these attacks will lead to further restriction of their freedom of movement, and further immiseration for them. It’s an incredibly frightening time. And I mean, I just want to say, I mourn those attacks on Beirut and on Paris.

Of course.

And I have friends in both cities and it’s a horrifying thing that this group is murdering people. And I think that as the world decides how to deal with that, what they have to avoid doing is they have to avoid giving into what that group wants. What ISIS wants is to make the world shut its doors to refugees. It wants to – in their words – reduce the “gray zone” where Muslims can live in the West. The more that a country becomes intolerant, the more that it closes its borders, the more that it is giving ISIS what it wants.

The more they’re winning. We don’t have a lot more time, but I want to encourage young women in particular to read this book, and to try to express how powerful it is what you’ve written here. Not only do you describe crossing all sorts of borders, that you were never supposed to cross as the young woman that you were coming up, but you’ve also taken on, in a very courageous way – speaking, drawing, speaking when perhaps drawing was the thing you were trained to do and you felt anxious about speaking. This is a beautifully written book.

Thank you so much. Two years of my life.

What’s your message to young women out there who think, “Oh, I could never do that”?

What would I say to young women? I would say, that if you’re a young woman, the world wants to divide you into things. It wants to say you can be sexy or you can be serious; you can be smart or you can be pretty; you can be loved or you can have a career, but you can’t do both. What the world fears the most is female muchness. Which is so different from having it all. No, they fear [us] being it all. And I want to say that we only have one life. And that life is far too short to cut off piece of our selves; it’s far too short to limit ourselves based on the dictate of some boss or some rule or some silly thing that was never meant for your benefit anyway. So I just want to tell women to develop every aspect of them selves, including the jagged bits and the complicated bits, and to be who they are.

You’ve also taken on the Palestinian boycott, the cultural boycott.

I have, yes.

You participated in a video about it. Why won’t you be going to Palestine and Israel? Why is that important to you?

Well, I mean, I will be going, continue to go to Palestine for journalism. But the reason that I won’t be working with Israeli cultural institutions – I don’t believe in state-based and racial discrimination, that’s why, and I think that BDS is a peaceful, nonviolent and very effective tactic that’s been called for by Palestinian civil society. And I can’t support a state that’s fundamentally based on racism.

So you won’t be going with the book though? I guess that’s what I was thinking. You won’t be doing book tours?

Oh no, I won’t be doing a book tour in Israel, no.

Molly, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Thank you.

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