"Life's Too Short to Do All This Work and Not Do It Right"
An Interview with Viggo Mortensen
Viggo Mortensen's Perceval Press has stepped up to the plate swinging, having published gorgeous books by artist/poet Georganne Deen (with a foreword from Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore), Japanese sensation Yoshitomo Nara, Cuban photographer Jose Luis Alvarez Pupo, Anne Fishbein, Lola Schnabel and more. In addition, Perceval has also taken what may seem like a detour, publishing a collection of essays on the Iraqmire called Twilight of the Empire: Repsonses to Occupation -- featuring selections from Jodie Evans, Naomi Klein, Anne Brodsky, the embattled Joseph Wilson and others (including Morphizm's own Sandra Fu) -- as well as City of Quartz author Mike Davis' first young reader's book, The Land of the Lost Mammoths.
Not bad for a couple years' hard labor.
Then there is Viggo's own photographic work, a selection of which entitled Miyelo, is being released in paperback this spring after enjoying a healthy hardcover run. Shot in the desert during the filming of Mortensen's latest movie, Hidalgo, Miyelo is both a photographic representation of the long-lost Lakota Ghost Dance as well as a sobering glimpse into one of America's many dark chapters in Native American history. Filled equally with panoramic blurs of Lakota dancers and compelling selections on Native American history, Miyelo is a heady consideration of America's past -- and present -- violence in the name of national security.
Morphizm: Are you planning on moving the Miyelo installation somewhere now that its run at the Stephen Cohen gallery is concluded?
VM: I'm not sure. There are a couple of possibilities to take it somewhere else. People that have come from overseas or from around the country to see the show have asked if we were going to take it anywhere else. But I'm not sure; we'll have to wait and see if there's enough interest. I'm just glad that people came out to see the pictures.
Morphizm: How has the overall reception to Miyelo been?
VM: It's been good. A lot of people have made positive comments about it; some like the fact that it has caused them to want to learn more about the Ghost Dance, or about the Lakota people and the incidents and consequences of Wounded Knee. And then photographers have been asking interesting technical questions, making helpful comments. It's good to get feedback, positive or negative.
Morphizm: Has the book altered or enhanced your way of seeing photography as not just an artistic medium, but also a way of communicating history and culture?
VM: Yeah, I guess it can do that. It might not look like it, but this book was put together very quickly. Maybe too quickly! But it wouldn't have been possible if we didn't have specific photographs and clear visual concepts from the beginning. What made our work on the book, especially Michele's [Perez, Perceval's graphic designer], was the written material that we kept adding, the bibliography, just the job of rounding up and editing all the pieces that we wanted to put in there. It made it complicated in terms of selection and design, given the limited time we had, but the book was probably meant to turn out right. It is perhaps our most successful marrying of text, imagery and design. It worked out really well, so it feels like it was supposed to turn out that way.
(Viggo Mortensen, Miyelo 9, 2003)
There have been some Lakota people who have seen the show and expressed appreciation, that feel it is a positive effort. The images should speak for themselves, however. I don't believe that they need justification or text, but they do go hand-in-hand in a good way. Even at the shows; I think the excerpts of text from the book that we reproduced on some of the gallery walls have added to what the images communicate or relate to. If people don't like them after going to the gallery, they haven't told me about it. They've been really polite! I'd rather know the truth, know if something does not work well, of course. It's a bit risky for us, to make a hand-sewn, hand-bound collection, because we're not a big publisher. Especially with the unusual dimensions of the book; it makes the shipping trickier and a little more expensive, for example.
Books like this are typically expensive, but we've tried to keep the cost to the customer down. It's a little more expensive than our other books, but certainly less than other publishers would have charged. While that means we will have to sell more books and work harder to not only make back the money but also to split the proceeds with the Boys and Girls club of Pine Ridge, I didn't want to overcharge. I wanted the book to be accessible. Fortunately, it's selling really well. Much better than I dreamed it would be, actually.
Morphizm: Plus, you're putting a lot of personal care in the design, shipping, cost, basically everything. It has that indie press stamp really. It wasn't mass-produced.
VM: Yeah, it's not unusual to get letters from some who have bought the book commenting on the care with which it's been made, but also the speed with which they receive it, how carefully they're packed and all of that. I think people appreciate that, and that's the pay-off, the satisfaction you get for not overreaching and trying to become a gigantic, impersonal publisher. If anyone has a problem with this or any other book in terms of quality, I would hope they would continue to feel free to let us know about it.
(Viggo Mortensen, Miyelo 15, 2003 )
Morphizm: Well, the thing is that they can let you know. Even though you've got a relatively high profile, the press is still approachable.
VM: That's true. Good luck getting hold of other publishers. You're on hold, or talking to someone in the wrong department. The buck does stop here at Perceval, so to speak. We feel that life is too short to do all this work and not do it right, especially when dealing with customers. As long as the books pay for themselves so we can make new books and pay salaries, we count ourselves really lucky.
Morphizm: What about the other parts of Miyelo, like the bibliography or Mike Davis' section on Wovoka? What led you to include them?
VM: If we'd had more time, I probably would have included more stuff, but at least the bibliography sends you on your way. Mooney's essay still holds up; reprinting that and Mike's piece, along with the quotes, came up as we were putting the book together. I thought it would at least provoke the reader to ask some questions. Originally, I was just going to make a book of the color plates, which would have been fine, but then I kept thinking, "Let's just put in a little more of this and a little more of that." Although the book does not pretend to be all-encompassing, it does have a lot of information that you would have to search several different sources to find.
Morphizm: In that tug-of-war between independent integrity and the overall market, are there any lessons you learned being an actor that you carried over into the publishing world to keep treading that line?
VM: I'm not conscious of any specific ones. As an actor, I tend to gravitate to stories and characters that interest me, provoke me in some way. If there's something in a story that might be good for me to explore and learn about, that pricks my conscience or even scares me on some level, then that's where I try to go. I don't really differentiate between so-called independent movies or studio movies. I look at publishing in more-or-less the same way. If there was a book that, say, a well-known, maybe best-selling author wanted to do with us because he or she had a desire to publish material that was a real departure from the work they were well-known for -- a project close to their heart but perhaps one that would seem unexpected or obscure coming from them -- we would probably be as good a place for them as any.
Mike Davis is an example of this, with Land of the Lost Mammoths. With each of our books, we've taken care to satisfy the author first and foremost, while marrying that with our own design aesthetics as unobtrusively as possible. Those who have bought books from us have seemed to appreciate their quality. Our intention has been to put out interesting books in the hope that people will think for themselves, make their own decisions. There is, otherwise, no political agenda or limitation that we impose on ourselves or those we consider publishing in terms of art, philosophy, or anything else.
In that sense, I suppose parallels can be drawn to how I might look at a movie script. I just sort of take it in for what it is, trying not to pre-judge it because it has a big budget or a small budget, because it is a love story, action story, horror movie, comedy, documentary, or what-have-you. Some of our most successful books, with respect to the way they turned out, the way they look and how satisfied the artist has been, have been our one-off, limited-edition, signed artist's books. Other, unlimited books have gone into fourth and fifth editions. So, overall, Perceval is doing well, which is satisfying. It's a relief to know that the press it's more that paying for itself. Some of our books have taken longer to catch on, but the ones that have initially sold well have helped make up for any shortfall. The balance has, so far, been good.
Morphizm: You seem like a guy that, rather than read about a place, will just hop on a plane and go check it out for yourself. Which leads me to your trip to Cuba. How was getting into that country and finding out the realities on the ground, away from the media and government's party lines?
VM: Well, I like to meet people, and I tend to find that, wherever I've been, people generally are not that different when it comes to their views, needs, desires. Regardless of cultural, religious, social or economic differences, people have a lot more in common than not. I definitely found that to be true in Cuba. I think that one of the most effective weapons that the U.S. government uses against a country like Cuba -- or Russia, North Korea, Afghanistan and so on -- is to allow people to think of them as enemies. I mean, you take a person's faith or job away and we're more or less the same. I don't think Americans usually consider the concept of farmers going to work in the Cuban countryside, of people delivering mail, cooking for their children or cleaning the streets, tending to the injured and the ill in hospitals -- and that's the way our rulers, with the help of the media, wish to paint it for us. If you don't think of Cubans or Iraqis as actual human beings with jobs and day-to-day lives, if you don't see them or hear their voices, then it's easier to be against them. They're faceless. It's a tried-and-true way of dealing with people or nations that the ruling elite finds troublesome or inconvenient, whether it's Native Americans, Germans, Russians, Iraqis, Cubans, even the French -- whoever gets in our way. They're simply lumped into the enemy pile.
Morphizm: While we're on that subject, this administration has spent a massive amount of time making more enemies -- even among our allies -- than we seemed to have had before 9/11. What are your general thoughts on just how much the Bush administration has turned back the clock on everything from international relations to domestic civil liberties?
VM: The legacy is going to be extensive. The American way is to just knock everything down and remodel it, but it's going to take a president who really has some integrity to fix this. Even if another person with some integrity is elected president next year, and gets to serve two full terms, it's still going to take longer than that to repair the damage done to this country and its standing over the past two years. In so many ways, I think it's going to take many generations to fix what he's done. Even those who are genuinely concerned about it probably can't imagine the repercussions of what this guy and his friends have done in such a short amount of time. It's unbelievable.
Morphizm: And now there are hints that the Bush administration might be tampering indirectly with the next election. You've probably heard about the Diebold scandal involving one of Bush's "Pioneers."
VM: I think that it unfortunately means that if someone is going to unseat Bush, he or she is going to have to win by more than just a few percentage points. Which is unfair, but that's the way it is. I suppose it's crooked the way much of professional boxing is now. If you're a going to take on and defeat a title-holder or incumbent, you're going to have to really administer a sound beating.