Whitehot Magazine

Censorship and the Non-ownership of the Intangible: An Interview with John Gosslee

Blackout 110 [“Notes of a Native Son” by D.A. Powell from Useless Landscape, or a Guide for Boys (Graywolf, 2012)], 6 in. x 9 in.


In censorship, language is taken out of context. Gosslee’s "blackouts" expose the tension between censorship and language reclamation for the disempowered individual. John Gosslee adapts the ritual of mark making for the text based portion of the Out of Context collection. Starting with a contemporary poem as the canvas, Gosslee reads it once, then administers a form of automatic writing where marks are made to omit specific words. By redacting or censoring part of the poem’s original text, the remaining language is reclaimed and takes a new shape free of the original writer's intention. Gosslee felt it was important to credit the original writer’s works to illustrate the line drawn between the copies of work he redacted and the original author’s intent. In Gosslee’s Out of Context, the work explores dimensions of censorship as experienced by the censor, but doesn’t take away from the original work itself. His motivations for each author are complex and varied, but clear.

Heather Zises: In your current work on paper series, “Blackouts”, you invite viewers to explore ideas of censorship and language reclamation. Starting with a contemporary poem as your canvas, you read it once, and then administer black marks to omit certain words. Where did this idea come from and what messages do you wish to convey with your mark-making?

John Gosslee: The idea grew out of being an early career poet who could not attract an audience with established poets. They would not let me enter the conversation. I understand that people have time constraints and have established a certain decorum around their interactions, but being passionate and fully committed, I felt pushed to the outside of their circles. Five years later, after having established my poetry, this was a way for me to flip the tables and create the conversation the way I wanted to. In the Blackouts, I respect all of these poets works and I don’t think that I am improving or destroying them. I’m changing the rhetoric in a way that they are viewed. One of the things I found when redacting work is that all censorship empowers the position of the censor and all destruction empowers the position of the destroyer. This is just art.

Blackout 156 [“What I Mean When I Say Forever” by Geffrey Davis from Revising the Storm (BOA Editions, 2014)], 6 in. x 9 in.

HZ: Is there a certain methodology you employ when making your “Blackouts”? For example, how do you determine which poem to use and which words to omit?

JG: I read the book, then I select six poems from each one. On the second reading, I go through and create my own piece out of their work. The poets did all the heavy lifting, but I’m changing their voice completely in order to make it something other than what it was before. I enjoy the act of destruction as a creative outlet. Maybe it’s the male in me. I like to push boundaries and sometimes step right over them. Society’s constructs are inhibitive and oppressive. So much so that the people who are enacting them don’t want them. My policy is change what you want to change, destroy what you want to destroy, and feel what you want to feel. As long as it’s not illegal, it’s fine. And if it is illegal, you can likely change that too.

HZ: Your “Blackouts” could be interpret as a form of sculpture on a two-dimensional surface. With that in mind, how do you view your approach to making these works? Is it an additive process or a reductive process, or perhaps both? Furthermore, do you find that certain words or phrases lend themselves to the overall shape of each piece?

JG: I don’t view the work as sculpture, but do see how it can be interpreted that way. By censoring the poem’s original text, the reclaimed language takes on a new shape. For me, creating the Blackouts is a redactional process. The irony about making them is that through the removal of other things it becomes something else of its own. The whole approach is fluid. I don’t know whether the work is coming or going, and I don’t think the viewer does either. 

 Blackout 168 [“Fables of Critique” by Peter Gizzi from In Defense of Nothing (Wesleyan, 2014)], 6.5 in. x 8.5 in. 

HZ: Books and artworks are objects that require a form of “activation” from us as spectators. For example, a book can sit on a shelf until a reader opens it to read, or an artwork can hang on a wall unnoticed unnoticed until a viewer stands in front of it. As both a poet and an artist, how would you compare the relationship between a book and its reader with the relationship between an object and its viewer?

JG: I think they are the same. A book is an object and is also a work of art. So is a stone, whether it is polished in a setting or raw in a mine. Everything is art. With the Blackouts, everyone who looks at them is reminded of when they were censored, or when they censored themselves, or when they wanted to censor something else. There are so many ways to interpret and view this series. WM


Heather Zises

Heather Zises is a media professional with 20 years of experience in public relations and marketing. She is an accomplished editor and writer with focuses in digital content development and social media strategy. Her multi-award winning book, 50 Contemporary Women Artists (Schiffer 2018), is available at leading art institutions and university libraries. As Director of Communications at The Magnusson Group Heather manages digital marketing and social media campaigns for estate sales and online auctions. She is also a founding member of Ninth Street Collective, where she advises artists on professional development and conducts educational workshops. Heather began her career at Pace Gallery and Phillips, curating numerous exhibitions and site specific installations at galleries, art fairs and alternative spaces worldwide. 

view all articles from this author