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Monday, September 15, 2014

Borderline Personality: An Interview with Paul Abacus

Photo of Paul Abacus, courtesy of Steve Gunther

Paul Abacus is a Japan-based international presenter of ideas, and has become well known for his perspective on the workings of contemporary persuasion, particularly the presentation format itself. A disciple of polymath Buckminster Fuller, Abacus is a leader of the movement to dissolve national borders. His live presentation ABACUS was last seen at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and will be at BAM from September 24—27.

We asked Abacus to sit down with us for an interview. He sent us this instead.

At the request of the artists, the following interview was conducted in a double kayak circling Governor’s Island, and has been edited to fit your screen.

BANKSY: Paul, I haven’t seen you in person since Sundance. You look about five years older, but that’s good. Now you probably look your age.

ABACUS: You look like hell too.

BANKSY: Thank you. I just want to make sure we lay out the scene for folks. It’s a beautiful day in late summer in New York and we’re in a double kayak in spitting distance of the Statue of Liberty. I am in front, because Paul is better at steering. We are accompanied by Paul’s standard entourage of videographers, but the giant panda Dr. Bang—my favorite of your friends—is not here? Why not?

ABACUS: He can’t swim.

B: That’s a shame. So we are surrounded by your friends riding in an armada of bright orange canoes stenciled with panda heads, which are very fine stencils if I do say so myself.

A: And you’re wearing linen overalls, which I wouldn’t have expected.

B: Let’s get right down to it: what’s your real name?

A: Paul Abacus. What’s yours?

B: Banksy. Great, now that we’ve settled that, let’s continue. Why did you disappear after the 2012 Sundance Film Festival? It seemed like you were on a roll.

A: Sundance was the first time I’d had a response like that in the US. But, the whole thing was marred by an unwarranted scandal about my identity. You might remember that I punched a paparrazo in the face. Or, really, in the camera. And the camera hit him in the face.

B: Yes, I recall. Why did you do that?

A: I’ve spent the last year and a half thinking about that question. I was exhausted—I had actually passed out the previous day from dehydration while night skiing—which if you haven’t done, I highly recommend…

B: I love me some night skiing.

A: I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no explanation for my aggression other than on some deep level I knew that Luke’s taunts were a cry for help, and I was compelled to help him. We’re the best of friends now.

B: Luke?

A: Yes, the paparazzo’s name is Luke; he’s worked with me ever since. He’s over there in a canoe, filming us now.

B: You’re joking.

A: Not at all. Go ahead, ask.

B: Did Paul punch you in the face at Sundance?

LUKE: Best thing that ever happened to me.

B: How was it the best thing that ever happened to you?

L: I just, uh, I wasn’t doing shit at the time. I got a few vids on DMZ. I was doing ok, but I was an asshole, and I wasn’t working towards anything. You know, some classic cult of individuality shit. Spinning my wheels. Some late capitalist, media-saturated-fog-on-my-retinas-shit. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Total white-out. So, yeah, that punch, and the whole night after, the ABACUS crew, yeah, that was a major wake up call. Ring ring. Hello? Helloooooo! You know what I mean?

B: I don’t know what you mean, but, what happened that night?

L: Irrelevant. Hold on, canoe spinning, gotta paddle.

B: Ok, Paul, so what happened that night?

A: Hours of clear communication. We all went back to our place, this great lodge that Sundance provided that we were all crammed into…

B: Yeah, I stayed in that one the year before.

A: We could tell. Anyway, Luke spent most of the time tearing fake flowers into small pieces and talking about Cindy Crawford and Ferraris—childhood fantasies. And when we left, we invited Luke along, and now he’s paddling.

B: It’s been suggested that you encourage a cult mentality? Is that fair? Are you a cult leader?

A: Can I answer your question with a question?

B: No.

A: Well I’m going to anyway. Do you think the slow-food, or internet freedom movements are cults? Do you think Alice Waters or Edward Snowden are cult leaders? To me, both are standing up for their ideals, and that’s what I’m doing.

B: Where do you live now? I have this idea of you as a globetrotter with no real home?

A: I stayed in the mountains in the northern part of Kyoto this last year. In the winter, monks in the area stand under frigid natural waterfalls and meditate, but I just watch. Before that I lived in the house boat drifting between Portland and Baja—the one you stayed in after the mescaline thing. The last week in New York I’ve been sleeping in subways stations to get a feel for the place. You really should go down there—they could use some graffiti.

B: That’s another conversation. Where was the Paul Abacus that we know today born? Where did the need to share these ideas come from?

A: I was technically born in international waters about 500 miles off the coast of Hong Kong. My father was a giant sea bass—very conservative—and my mother was a bisexual cephalopod, so i’m sure you can imagine that Thanksgiving at our house was complicated to say the least.

B: I was waiting for an answer like that. That’s what I would call classic Paul Abacus.

A: Classic?

B: You walk the line between reality and fiction so consistently that I suppose most people never know if you’re telling the truth, or lying, until you lie big. And that’s why some people have even questioned whether you exist.

A: I certainly wouldn’t call the story of my birth a lie. And some is even true.

B: Well, what would you call it?

A: Conversation.

B: Don’t you think your tenuous relationship to reality undermines your argument about dissolving national borders?

A: No, I believe my tenuous relationship to reality is a reflection of my integrity in this world of ours. Things that sound rational, and logical, and evidence-based don’t get questioned nearly enough because they’re couched in an unimaginative, straight-ahead brand of language. That’s the real language of lying. My language encourages questions and doubt. That’s the point.

B: I have to be honest, I’m not sure most people see it that way.

A: Well that’s why I’m back. That’s why I couldn’t stay away, and why I finally had to come to New York. Because all these people are writing the place off as a once-radical place that’s gone corporate.

B: Yeah, I’ve heard that a bit.

A: But that’s not just New York, that’s the story everywhere. The false legend of our time, written by us.

B: I agree.

A: Let’s rewrite the story.

B: Okay: How?

A: It might be smarter to reach out on video, use the internet. That would be more efficient and easier, if it were possible. But, no, I’ve realized that live gatherings with an audience are the only option for me. I have to talk with one audience at a time.

B: See, I think that’s what I respond to most about what you’re doing. You’re not creating memes. You don’t dislike memes, but your whole thing is about live gathering. I think that’s brilliant. I think that’s where we’re headed.

A: I don’t have a choice. I’m compelled. That’s just how it is with me.

B: Ok, so that’s the harbor police over there, headed this way, so we probably should wrap up quickly. This question has been asked over and over again, and I’ve heard several different answers, but I’d like to ask you myself: why do you wear black tape under your eyes when you perform?

A: The lines are for facial recognition software.

B: You mean, to keep your face being recognized by computers?

A: No, to help cameras and the networks they are connected to recognize my face more easily, from greater distances. I’d like a very clear record of where I’ve been. And that way I don’t have to keep track myself; I can always just ask the government.

B: Is it true you don’t have a passport?

A: Yes.

B: How do you manage traveling without one?

A: I cross borders whenever I want, mostly by foot, sometimes by kayak. I’m part of this planet. I don’t need a passport. I don’t belong to any nation, I don’t acknowledge any borders, I can go where I please. So can you.

B: Amen, but what do you say to someone that thinks your "no National borders" proposition is “ridiculously utopian and not remotely practical?” In fairness, I just talked to someone who said exactly that.

A: I'd say forget the history books and use your common sense. The earth is obviously one ecosystem, is it not? National borders are a relatively new phenomenon; they clearly cause more problems than they solve; and they completely stunt our ability to recognize the total continuity of the Earth as a single, connected system. Which is not important because it’s a pretty idea, but because a) it’s just a fact, and b) we don’t have national problems, we have global problems. We can’t deal with them until we wake up to that very simple truth.

B: Why do you think you have not yet achieved the same level of recognition in the US as you have in Japan? What do you think it will take for Americans to recognize the urgency of your ideas?

A: I think the Japanese were first to experience the full effects of the Screen Age, and so naturally they were also the first to become aware of both its potential and dangers. People in the US are just now getting subsumed by screen culture on an extreme level. Once some unknown threshold is crossed, akin to radiation poisoning, the pendulum will start to swing the other way and I’ll be riding it like Miley Cyrus.

B: Would you ever accept an invitation to appear at a TED event?

A: I try to accept every invitation that I can. Every person is worth talking to in every setting, even if it might not appear that way. I don’t write off anyone or any place. That’s the first step.

B: What’s the second?

A: Well, this might sound obtuse.

B: Great.

A: I try to put my attention on all the things I haven’t been paying attention to at that moment. All of them.

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