Most users don’t know that Google can delete your blog and email for the sole, vague reason of “violations of terms of service.” This nightmare scenario happened this June to one of Filthy Dreams’ favorite writers Dennis Cooper, erasing over a decade of content, email correspondence and a draft of his GIF novel Zac’s Freight Elevator.
Launched fourteen years ago, Cooper’s blog covered much of the same territory as his subversive novels–sad twinks, drugs, sex, violence and murder. But, not all the blog’s content was sordid. The blog also ranged from a collection of fireworks-related GIFs to a list of abandoned amusement parks. However, his most frequent posts were monthly roundups of sex and kink ads–“Select International Male Escorts” and “Select International Male Slaves.” Given his preferred topics, Google’s deletion looked a lot like censorship.
A vibrant group of artists, writers, queers and other fans of Cooper’s writing gathered in the blog’s comment sections, communicating between themselves and Cooper. In a New York Times editorial “The Blog That Disappeared,” Roxane Gay described his comment section as “a real community of people who engage one another and the art, with none of the blunt ignorance found in most comment sections.” When Google deleted the blog, it erased this community too.
Cooper finally obtained the archives of his blog and email in August, rebooting the blog on another platform soon afterward. He learned that Google deleted the blog because someone reported an image from ten years ago as child porn. Of course, it wasn’t. The image in question wasn’t even Cooper’s own. Ten years prior, Cooper asked readers to contribute content they found sexy to an ongoing series of “self-portrait” posts. Some of the responses were, unsurprisingly, pornographic. He protected himself–or so he thought–by putting a link off the blog requiring viewers to click. As Cooper told me, the image “was from a Russian gay porn site…They look young, but they are in no way children.”
I originally conducted this interview with Cooper and the New Museum’s Associate Curator of Performance and Manager of Public Programs Travis Chamberlain as a preview to Violations an evening of performances at the museum last Thursday, organized in response to the blog’s deletion and the release of Zac’s Freight Elevator. The event featured a diverse range of Cooper’s friends, colleagues and fellow artists including Richard Hell, Dorothea Lasky, Yvonne Meier and M. Lamar. The participants all interpreted selections of Cooper’s GIF novels through multidisciplinary performances or readings. Partnering with PEN America, the evening also featured a conversation PEN’s Free Expressions at Risk Program Director Karin D. Karlekar.
But, the publication this interview was originally for, which will go unnamed since I don’t need their legal team coming down on me like the hammer of Thor, killed the piece by a “top editor” (I’m assuming lawyer) last minute because they couldn’t take Cooper’s word that the offending image posted ten years ago wasn’t child pornography. They said they didn’t want to be seen as supporting child porn, apparently not recognizing the irony of essentially silencing Cooper–and by extension, me–for the same reason Google wrongfully deleted DC’s Blog. This means that even though Google gave Cooper his work back, he still is somehow under question, culpable and tainted by the deletion. And, in the wake of Trump’s election, that should send a chill down any writer’s spine.
So I brought the conversation here–to Filthy Dreams–where it should have been in the first place. With Cooper calling from Universal’s Island of Adventure theme park two days after the election, a surreal tone hovered over our conversation as we discussed the deletion of Cooper’s blog, GIF novels and how Trump’s presidency may threaten transgressive art and literature.
Violations is a response to Google’s deletion of your blog and email account. How did you discover this deletion and retrieve your materials?
Dennis Cooper: I was online, checking my email. Suddenly, my email refreshed and it was gone. It said, “Your account has been disabled.” Then, my blog was disabled. I immediately searched for a place to write messages to Google like, “Please restore my blog, this is insane what happened, etc.” I did that a bunch of times with no response. I went public and everyone was very supportive. People started helping me, who knew people internally at Google. No one was able to make any headway and there was a complete block on the case. It went on like that for a long time.
Eventually, I found a French artists’ rights lawyer who contacted Google’s lawyer. After an article in the New Yorker ran, I got an email from their lawyer saying, “We’re ready to talk.” They originally said, “There’s nothing you can do. We’re not giving anything back. What you’ve done is so horrible.” Their lawyer said that someone reported child pornography on the blog from ten years ago, that’s why it was deleted and I should be glad they didn’t call the police. I said, “There’s no child pornography on my blog. I just don’t believe this.” The lawyers were going back and forth. They finally said, “Well if you sign a nondisclosure agreement, we’ll give you back your materials.” And I said, “I’ll sign it if you do, because I don’t want you coming out and making some story that I can’t respond do.” They said that wasn’t acceptable. I thought that was it.
Then, Roxane Gay wrote her piece in the New York Times, which seemed to change everything. The next day I got an email from them and they gave back everything on a hard drive. It’s a jungle–I have to reconstruct the posts. They sent the supposed image of child pornography and of course, it wasn’t child porn at all.
I think it was an algorithm problem that was incredibly simple that they didn’t want to deal with. After it blew up, they realized they had to have a good story.
Why do you think Google eventually gave your materials back? Was it the influx of press?
DC: I think there was so much bad publicity and pressure with PEN, they decided to cut their losses. It was all over the world. All the press was completely against them. They said, “Let’s just give it to him and it’ll shut him up.” And it did shut me up. I didn’t want to go to court. I just wanted to get my blog back.
Travis, did you play any role in this? How did Violations come about?
Travis Chamberlain: Not other than just following along and being supportive from afar. The concept for Violations actually predated the Google deletion. It was something I proposed to Dennis not long after the publication of his first GIF novel Zac’s Haunted House in 2015. I thought the material was really interesting, especially what it meant to read it. Coming from a performance background, I immediately thought of these GIF novels as a type of score for potential performances. I had the idea of organizing an event inviting people to interpret what it would mean to read aloud from these texts. But, there wasn’t an immediate context in which to present it. And then, when the news about Google came up and I became aware he lost the draft of his third major GIF text, I immediately reached out to him.
I’m glad you brought up the tension with “reading” a GIF novel. Did you offer the performers any guidance or was it carte blanche?
TC: It’s pretty carte blanche. Richard Hell raised questions around how it’s not a reading, it’s a translation. There’s a lot of subjectivity involved with how we define these terms of reading and translation. Even the idea that these are fictions is a subjective way of articulating what this body of work is. The idea that these GIFS exist as a novel is a sort of self-defined way of talking about the work. I think that’s important. It invites the reader–whether reading quietly or out loud–to engage with their assumptions about what fiction is, what a novel is and of course, what it means to read.
I “read” Zac’s Freight Elevator today and I was wondering how to even talk about it. Do I say I “read” it? I “viewed” it?
DC: I know it’s a very foreign thing. I’m interested in getting other people to try to figure out how they’re a novel. They’re constructed to be very pleasurable. You can deconstruct it if you want. I feel pretty open about it. I like the idea of it being presented as a novel, but if readers like to see it as a graphic novel or a movie or something, it doesn’t bother me. But I like to see the readers do what I did, which is try to figure out a way to think of GIFs as paragraphs, sentences or phrases. I like them to take that challenge and figure that out. I think the new one is the clearest and has the most narrative. The thematics are specific to the section. There’s one that has drinking and one with violence. I think it’s the most decipherable of the novels.
TC: There’s something really interesting to me about how a GIF can act like a quote and how if you’re putting quotes next to each other, you’re producing an argument. There’s something about that.
DC: I think of them as materials. I’m aware of the sources and I’m aware of what’s recognizable about them. I think of them as being raw material. And they’ve been distorted into loops. The people who made the GIFs are artists in themselves–whether they define themselves that way or not. They‘ve distorted this image into what they wanted it to be. It creates this tension. They’re quotes but there’s also an intermediate space. It’s like borrowing other artists’ work in a way.
TC: How would you talk about character as a construct?
DC: It’s impossible because I use found GIFS to actually have a consistent character so it’s basically archetypes. You recognize them first by gender or race or age. Then, you can get more specific like this is the sad one, the violent one or the one that’s a drunk.
Has your process changed between the first GIF novel Zac’s Haunted House and now?
DC: The first one is kind of punk to me now. I’ve spent so much time on the GIF texts. They’re incredibly time-consuming. I’ve learned many more effects I can get or things I can make happen. I figured out you can make things beautiful, sad or wistful. The first one was more about a haunted house–shocking, horrific and sad. It’s just like writing–the more you write, the more sophisticated you can become if you want to. I also learned the limitations. That’s why I’m not sure I’m going to do anymore. I think I’ve maxed out what you can do with them, but I don’t know.
It’s an extension. That’s why I’m more interested in doing those than writing fiction right now. It allows me to work with that in a really elaborate and complex way that you can’t do with fiction. I can do that very much with the GIFs and I think it’ll have an effect on the fiction that I write afterwards.
To return to the event and the blog, how do you see Violations as a response to censorship?
TC: We partnered with PEN America on the event for a conversation with PEN’s Free Expressions at Risk Program Director Karin D. Karlekar to talk about what the situation with Google and Dennis represents for other artists who are working with social media. We can open this up beyond a purely American perspective to see how social media operates on the world at large for artists. We can also see how social media produces networks similar to how Dennis’ blog operates–creating this community of queer–and not queer–artists who are interested in provocative ideas and need a space to explore that together. Dennis’ blog provided that.
What is so terrifying is that it’s not just an American issue. Google is a global company.
DC: The media coverage of the deletion came from all over the world. I was being interviewed about it in South America, Russia and Japan, which shocked me. It was just as much of an issue in other countries as it was in the United States or France where I live. I don’t know why it caught people’s fancy. Some of it was that I have a worldwide readership on the blog and of my work. But, it wasn’t just about Dennis and the blog. Anything you do on Google or these sites is not yours. You don’t own it. That’s what I realized–I don’t own anything.
We’re talking two days after Donald Trump was elected president. How do you think this changes the context of Violations?
TC: I don’t know if you follow M. Lamar on Facebook but one of the things I wanted to bring into this conversation, which he wrote on November 8. To me, it resonates now in a really powerful way. He wrote:
“I have always read the white boys in Dennis Cooper’s work to be the quintessential grunge boy. The emaciated, hopeless white boy unable to step into any kind of patriarchal masculinity. I love the recurrence of the white boy in crisis, feminized, drug addicted and longing. This longing absent of an object on which to project is in a constant state of melancholy. Cooper’s white boy sadness and ambivalence about it’s place in patriarchal masculinity for me represents a moment of rupture and possibility. All of these cock sucking Kurt Cobain goth boys….. what more could one want?!?!”
I think there’s a way in which that speaks to a lot of queer cisgender, white male perspective in this moment and I think it’s something that Dennis has been preoccupied with throughout his career.
DC: If anything Trump says can be believed, he essentially seems to ideally want a situation where the media is controlled by the government like Russia and other countries. These artists in Russia are heavily censored, punished and jailed for doing things that are much milder than my GIF novels.
Do you approach your blog differently now?
DC: No. [Laughs] It’s the same as it was before.