If you look at the painting, illustration, and figure drawing work of Eliza Gauger, you wouldn’t be wrong if you thought you saw the visual influence of the likes of Egon Schiele, and an overall thematic investigation of the grotesque. Additionally, Gauger’s work on the absurdist Jerk City comic showcases a familiarity with both Dadaism and meme culture, but basically the opposite of how pretentious that makes it sound. On top of visual art, Gauger has done work in music and been an active and charismatic figure online for over a decade. But the project that’s been taking up the majority of their time, lately, has much more in common with chaos magick and the works of Austin Osman Spare than their previous endeavours.
Since 2013 Gauger has been creating Problem Glyphs, through the process of leaving their Tumblr ask box open to anonymous comments, and reading the problems of those who offered them up. Gauger then created visual representations of sigilized imagery, meant to evoke the shape of and the path through the issue. I’ll let them tell you more about it, below, but the long and the short of it is, Problem Glyphs were a runaway success.
As the questions kept pouring in, it eventually became clear that Gauger had struck a current, and that a massively cathartic process was being shared by many people, and now, three years later, a book collection is being developed. From the Kickstarter campaign:
The Problem Glyphs art book contains 100 glyphs and their associated submissions, accompanied by an introduction by Eliza Gauger and a foreword by award-winning writer, Warren Ellis. Problem Glyphs will be a premium edition, display-worthy art book, measuring 10×12″ and featuring a Smyth sewn, genuine clothbound hard cover with gold foil-stamped cover illustrations. The estimated 220 interior pages will be printed on beautiful matte coated art paper. Tremendous care has gone into every aspect of the book, from its binding to its typography, the beautiful and storied Doves Type.
I got the chance to have a tarot-based conversation with Eliza Gauger, to discuss the origins, impact, and future of Problem Glyphs.
TECHNOCCULT: The Fool: Because the Fool starts the whole journey of the Major Arcana, we like to use this card to kick us off. How did the Problem Glyphs project start, for you?
ELIZA GAUGER: Problem Glyphs started because back in 2013 “ask memes” were just coming into prominence on my tumblr dashboard. I thought a good ask meme would be asking for people’s problems and then drawing them a quick, simple sigil in a program called Alchemy.
T0: You As You See Yourself: The Three of Pentacles. This card usually signifies being at the height of your skill, the pinnacle of your art. Do you feel that something about the footing you’ve found and the self you’ve crafted with Problem Glyphs is different from what you’ve had with previous projects?
EG: Problem Glyphs has mostly been a way of engaging what teachers at the only atelier school I ever attended called “mileage”: the act of drawing, as much as possible, all the time. Mileage is the golden rule of improving your skill. Whoever has the most mileage will be the most skilled draftsman at the end of the day. This was hammered into the students and was easy to see demonstrated time and again. It’s been handily demonstrated in this project. My drawing skill at the beginning of this project and now are leagues apart, and I just owe it to simple concentration on drawing figures with simple tools. For me this is gratifying because I’ve always been an illustrator more than a fine artist, at heart. I have the pretense of a fine artist only as much as it gets me gallery shows and sells work, because that pretense is a necessary part of self-management and marketing. But really I have the soul of a pulp novel painter and always have. So I care about impactful compositions, anatomy, beauty, realism, and style. Being a better draftsman now than I was is very gratifying to me, personally.
T0: Immediate Influence: The Nine of Wands. Meaning a release, a sense of purpose, creativity beyond the bounds of a preexisting structure. What is it about Problem Glyphs that makes you feel free? How do you simultaneously manage to express and lose yourself in the answers to so many people?
Goal: The Seven of Pentacles. This is about Full Immersion of yourself into what you do. Do you ever want to disappear into your work? To only be known as some kind of inarticulable union of self and art?
EG: I feel I’m already immersed fully in a persona, and this is partially related to my occupation as a public artist and partially to my personal struggle with gender dysphoria–I am in drag every day, more or less, and my interest in makeup and style stem from my concern with having some sort of mastery over this drag, which I would opt out of if I felt that I was able to, at this time.
T0: Recent Past: Death. Change. There’s a feeling, here, like something rotted off and fell away, recently, allowing you to develop something new. Compost Roses. What’s changed, for you, and what has it changed into?
EG: This is too personal to talk about, unfortunately. I can only say I hope something good comes of it. I am trying to atone
T0: Further Past: The Knight of Pentacles. Something about throwing yourself into your work at a time when it was the absolute hardest. Is there a story about the movement between this card and the previous one? What is it?
EG: Again, I can’t talk about it, I’m sorry.
T0: Near Future: Temperance. What forces are you looking toward balancing, in your art and yourself? What aspects or effects do you hope to catalyze or precipitate through Problem Glyphs?
EG: I am building an enormous amount of some sort of cosmic credit over here, but I’m not sure what it is, exactly. People are getting Problem Glyph tattoos at a rate that stuns me. There’s got to be some sort of power building in that process of dozens of people branding themselves with my pictures. It literally animates the images, makes them walk around, fills them with blood and plasma. What does that mean, exactly? I’m not sure. Since I started it, this project has been a confusing dichotomy of “exclusively mine” and “out of my hands, existing on its own terms”. Some things about it are mine and I guard them jealously. Other parts of it I consider the property of the audience. Soon the glyphs will be printed into hundreds of pages, hundreds of times, hundreds of books. Then, later, we’ll do it again to more glyphs. These glyphs will fly to people’s shelves, bookstores, libraries, and eventually basements and attics and used bookstores and dumps and bonfires and cardboard boxes and rummage sales. My favorite artists were always the ones in the footnotes of art history books, who only got brief mentions for being strange or notable in larger epochs. You can’t get rid of someone so easily once they’ve been set in paper. Depression makes a person impermanent. Once the book is printed there will be 100 proofs of me, floating around bookshelves and dumps for the next 300 years. It’s not that I haven’t been published before, I have–but this is different.
T0: Clarification: The Emperor. Rigid structural control, but with a kind of Confucian sense of the ruler being ruled by the kingdom. You say that some parts of this you guard as jealously and keep a tight control on. Does that include talking about them to others, or would you be willing to tell what a few of them are? Do you see any relationship between the aspects which are yours and the ones which are out of your hands?
EG: The aspects of possession of the project are ownership over the authorial process itself, and the images. For example, there was a single case of someone not liking the way I had drawn a glyph. They wanted the body of the figure in the glyph to be different. So, they took my drawing, clumsily altered it in photoshop to erase and change the body of the figure in a way THEY thought was “better”, then actually re-uploaded it as a reply to the original post, publicly. This is probably one of the most offensive and intrusive things anyone has ever done with my work. To assume my drawing was “incorrect” is one thing, but to publicly and without permission to just erase part of my work and replace it with their own? The process involved erasing a depiction of my actual body (artists use themselves as models constantly, out of convenience primarily), then replacing it with what this person adjudged as “superior”. It was astonishingly rude, not to mention belittling to my work, life, the project, and my actual physical form in public. What a nightmare. I had to make a public announcement to please not alter the glyphs and then provide them for the public. I’ve always said you can do what you want with the drawings for your own purposes, up to and including altering the drawings for tattoos etc, but posting these alterations, taking credit for my work, then providing them on a public platform as an “improvement” over the original? Such a weird series of decisions for a “fan” to make, and not one I thought I would ever have to address, or to ask people not to do.
T0: You As Others See You: The Seven of Wands. Reserved regality. Passion, but held aloof. Is this an image you feel applies to you, or just is applied to you? If the former, do you work to cultivate that image?
EG: This is accurate. Online it’s necessary to be reserved, I think, for a lot of reasons. I grew up on the internet and learned some pretty tough lessons about melting down in public or just letting people know every stupid detail of my life, which is something people genuinely want to know, a lot of the time. Intimacy is one of the most desirable things you can offer from a public facing profile, because of how it makes your audience feel, but it’s one of the most expensive to maintain. I have learned through trial and error that a very sheetmetal sort of personality helps me repel a lot of creeps and other undesirables while still allowing me to show my outfits, joke around, or talk about stuff I find interesting.
T0: Further Future: The Ten of Wands. Intense Desire and Passion. Do you think you’ll continue to find passion in Problem Glyphs? Do you usually find yourself passionate about digging down on one project for a long time, or do you need to have a lot of things going at once and move from one to another to keep things fresh?
EG: The way my brain seems to be built is to absolutely strip the bones of a subject and then move on to something else, so the longevity of problem glyphs has surprised no one more than myself. I think the constant challenge and the ability to direct my own subject matter has kept it interesting, as well as the total lack of oversight by any third party. I have a fantastic business manager, Simon Berman of Strix Publishing, who I work very closely with to keep things organized, but he has zero input on what I’m drawing, when, or how. The audience response also helps a great deal. All human beings want to know they are useful, so hearing from anyone that this effort has helped them at all has really fed back into the process and helped me, in turn, continue to produce glyphs. Still, I have plans for more work other than Problem Glyphs, some of it even before the end of the year, work I’m very pleased about.
T0: Emotional/Mental State: The Ten of Swords. Of the Minor Arcana we see, this is the only one that isn’t a wand or a pentacle, and it’s interesting that it’s here. A pressure and a weight in concepts, but also the abstraction of problems into thought. Do you feel that weight in how others see and feel about Problem Glyphs? Is there a sense of responsibility there? Do you feel that in any of your other work?
EG: There is a weight in Problem Glyphs and I try not to step on toes or piss anyone off too much. I’m pretty niche and not too well known so there haven’t been any actual problems yet. I think most people who dislike or don’t get anything out of the project tend to just dismiss it and move on with their lives, which is the best and correct decision. I also have a policy on never reading the comments on interviews or posts about my work. It’s a given that people will hate it and/or me, and not just people who “don’t get it”, and to borrow a phrase from Chris Onstad, that’s fine because that’s okay. I just don’t need to beam those opinions directly into my brain.
T0: Ultimate Outcome: The World. Everyone is going to know about this, soon. Like, Problem Glyphs is already an international phenomenon, but after the book comes out, it will reach people it never has, before. What do you most want these newcomers—and even those who’ve been here, the whole time—to understand about Problem Glyphs?
EG: I’m not sure Problem Glyphs will ever get Big big. It’s still a very esoteric concept. One of the first articles/interviews that came out about it even got the basic concept completely backwards–the author thought I was just illustrating problems themselves, not doing anything more–and I still don’t even have an elevator pitch. So I feel relatively “safe” in relative obscurity. I would be very surprised if Problem Glyphs ever blew up in a serious way. Of course, this being my spread, maybe the cards are telling me something else. Here’s hoping I’m not responsible for a second Satanic Panic. Maybe Oprah will read and like my book, that would be really nice.
T0: Clarification: The Ten of Pentacles. The realization of dreams or material success through the grounded hard work of skillcraft. This is the last card, and the last Pentacle. I think you might be right about something else being about to happen here. I pulled a clarification on this card because a lot of what you’ve said, culminating here, has been very dichotomous. You talk about the aspects that belong to you, and several times you circle around the relationship between fame and obscurity, going so far as to say, above, that your favourites have always been found in the footnotes of history. So I’m wondering: Say this project does become huge: Would you call that success? Aside from Oprah reading and liking the book (which would be AMAZING), what would the definition of Problem Glyphs’ success be, for you?
EG: Success has been impossible to me to define for myself except in a sort of clinical way. I never actually “feel” it, even when it objectively occurs. This is an experience of depression, and I think it is a common experience of many artists. It is one reason most of us despise writing CVs for gallery shows or book flaps. It requires us to count out, on our fingers, our various “accomplishments” and many of us can’t experience those “accomplishments” except in the very very abstract. Drawing and writing and so on don’t make many of us feel happy or satisfied, and it’s not why many of us make things. Some artists do seem lucky and healthy enough to have a mutually beneficial relationship with their work, but you will find confusion is response to the concept of “success” very often when reading artists’ own words about their work. For many of us, the process of work or achievement is more about the avoidance of additional pain, or in other cases, because the process is reflexive and can’t be avoided any more than (and this is a metaphor I’ve seen several times) breathing. This is a very long winded way of trying to explain that many of us, myself included, experience an almost total artistic anhedonia: we can take pleasure in other art, but our own exists in a sort of numbness, and it’s created by impulsion and an inescapable drive rather than logical goals or the pursuit of achievement. This all sounds horribly snooty. I’m struggling to explain it. I rely on trusted friends and family to tell me what success is. My mom and dad both like and understand Problem Glyphs, and they think it’s successful. I can warily accept their judgment, but can’t really experience it in the first person.
This is often very disappointing and confusing for people who buy art and support artists to hear, so I think a lot of us, including myself, have learned not to talk about it. But depression and mental illness permeating the lives of many artists is, aside from being a poorly-depicted cliché, also a very basic tenet of our lived experience. Concealing or ignoring it seems inappropriate, given the basic purpose of Problem Glyphs itself.
This leads to the logical next question: why draw at all, why have an artistic career, if you can’t experience your own success? There are a lot of answers, including an urge to be useful, the necessity of earning money to continue to survive even if you don’t especially feel like it, and tiny things only the artist really cares about: mastering the contour of a nose, experiencing color, softening a perfect gradient, the smell of copal, the kinetic pleasure of a particular brush, the immeasurable smallness of the place between “i want to paint” and “i am painting”, alliteration in a sentence, the knowing of cadmium yellow, a mechanical typewriter that can type in both red and black.
These things are incommunicable. Kim Gordon said, “people will pay to watch others believe in themselves”, and this vicarious experience of art is the umbilicus between artist and patron. It’s the lever both of us are always tapping, waiting for a pellet reward to fall out.
I want to once again thank Eliza Gauger for taking the time to talk to us, and for giving such a great deal of insight into their mindset and process. In addition to the many places listed above, you can find and support Eliza on Patreon, Twitter, Facebook, and their own Toxoplasm.org.
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