Interview with Dr. Dejan Lukic

FALL 2019

by Nic Tanner Cohort ’17

Nic Tanner: Okay so let's start with a basic beginning question: Can you tell me a little about your background? How did you become interested in philosophy and art in general in your life? When did you know that you wanted to make those interests a part of your professional and creative life?

Dr. Dejan Lukic: There wasn't a specific moment when I started thinking about philosophy but my introduction to philosophy was like many other people's through literature. For me specifically (like for a number of other people), through Franz Kafka during my last year in high school. I started reading Kafka and a universe opened up for me. It was a more philosophical universe than a literary universe, but again, it was philosophical questions through literature. [From there], I just started searching on my own for authors and themes that would interest me. That started when I was 18 and it still continues, just with more focus now. Literature led me into philosophy, comparative religion and anthropology, all of these disciplines [including] art history and I was always in between all of them. I chose anthropology for my graduate school. For my undergraduate studies, I did go to University of Leuven and I studied comparative religion there, but I was taking classes at the Institute of Philosophy which is a very famous institute in Europe. The University holds all of the Husserl archives and there were a lot of famous philosophers who pass through there as speakers and as professors. This is where I really entered into professional philosophy (if you can call it that), but still philosophy wasn't my focus. At that time, I started to be more interested in human experience and I wanted to study it firsthand through observation rather than through books. That's why I went into anthropology.

I continued studying art and philosophy on the side and focused on anthropology but with time that kind of changed. I started being interested in analysis of text again and I was just crossing these disciplinary boundaries. I was lucky that I was in the anthropology department at Columbia that allowed for this crossing of boundaries between art and architecture and anthropology and philosophy. That was kind of my academic path. On my personal path, I was doing research on my own mostly in avant-garde movements in art and again implications for philosophy. I don't know what you could call that, may be ‘radical philosophy’ or ‘less known phenomenologist of the 20th century.’ In graduate school, I discovered Deleuze and then through Deleuze an entire line of what we call ‘philosophy of immanence’ opened up. That was really another huge opening for me. I intuitively/immediately felt that that's where I belonged. Even more specifically through that entire line running from the Stoics, Lucretius, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Deleuze, and so on. I started to shift more and more into philosophy and writing about images. Through writing, I got into art and through philosophically investigating the nature of images; that's the connection of philosophy and art that I was already there in the middle of and the rest is where I am now. I started teaching in art schools and art writing and philosophy.

N: You mentioned the ‘crossing of boundaries’: do your find that’s something—not only in your academic interests—but in general, that you are sort of inclined towards naturally? What would you say about the strengths or weaknesses of boundary crossing for artists or philosophers?

D: Yeah, absolutely! On all levels boundary crossing is probably the essence (if I can use that word) of all thinking and existing. It's good that you mentioned it because, [while] I would have to think about it, it’s probably the most essential thing and something that is at the core of all other interests in all disciplines—strangely enough to anthropology—[and what] attracted me initially. I had a professor in Belgium who was teaching linguistic philosophy and art, and he was an anthropologist. He had a big impact on me and I thought, ‘This is what I want to be. I wanted to move seamlessly between disciplines.’

I also had the proclivity to search for things on my own and make connections between them which I thought was the most exciting thing! Really, just finding the connections, more than even delving into the details of specific authors or themes; for me it was more about connections between things that are not really necessarily related, so that's the crossing of boundaries. I found that extremely exciting. In anthropology, I learned that all sorcerers and alchemists were masters of crossing boundaries. I was also seduced by that, of course, who wouldn't be? I kind of also kept that as the formula. Then of course, I come from former Yugoslavia, a communist country that collapsed when I was finishing high school, when I was just starting these enquiries. So there was a boundary that was crossed in my world, in my life world, and I knew, even before it happened, that I wanted to leave that context. I had the consciousness of constantly leaving my own context, and that became both an aesthetical task for me and also a political task. I kept that going and then later on I learned about nomadic thinking and again, I thought, ‘Well, I'm right there in the middle of it,’ so that just encouraged me to theoretically and philosophically make that type of thinking more sophisticated. Naturally, I gravitate to artists and writers who have that similar paradigm of crossing boundaries embedded in their work, and in their thinking, either consciously or unconsciously. It doesn't matter. It's kind of in the nature of the artist to also be that nomadic creature, conceptually speaking, or non conceptually speaking. I tend to also like artists who don't just work with their own identity, but who exceed their identities and their contexts.

N:  How did you become aware of IDSVA, and what was it about the program that attracted you to it?

D: It was a totally accidental or a destiny-bound discovery. Whichever way you take it—accidental destiny. I discovered it on my own, you know looked it up on the website. When I first came across it, I was already teaching in the art writing department at the School of Visual Arts and focusing on philosophy and art. As soon as I saw the program, I just jumped and thought, ‘Well, this is exactly where I should be!’ I was delusional too, of course, but I did have an immediately positive, affirmative reaction and a desire to be in contact. So I wrote to the founder, [Dr.] George Smith, and I presented myself, told him who I am, what I do. And he said, ‘wonderful let's meet when I'm in New York next time,’ and in a couple of months, we met. I live in New York. We had a great conversation and everything I thought about [the program] was confirmed. I felt that I kind of naturally fit really well into the program. Luckily [Dr.] George  [Smith] thought so too, and I slowly started working for IDSVA.

N: So you mentioned Spinoza, Nietzsche, and some other. Was there something that initially attracted you to those thinkers, and is there any kind of thread running through them, and also through your work, or even through the work of contemporary artists on your radar?

D: Well, there is a through line, that I mentioned before, which is a line of eminence; believing that the world is immanent. We live in an immanent world, meaning there is nothing beyond this world. There are no ideas outside of this world. There is no God outside of this world. Whatever this world implies, this world implies everything—the entire cosmos, the planet, any conceptual world making—you name it. That's the first kind of radical idea that attracted me, immanent philosophy, and I don't know why that attracted me. It's that mysterious element that we can't really answer. Like why we love some authors immediately and why we fall in love with some ideas immediately. There's some clandestine affinity that's hard to explain or it's not necessary to explain, it's instinctual and animalistic rationality. So for me, that's what it was. Once those doors opened, there was no return for me to Hegel or Plato, except as a scholar.

There's that element and there's also something a little bit more specific that we call vital materialism, as a form of  philosophical materialism that runs through these authors. It's a combination of vitalism and materialism. I was really attracted to and this is kind of a line that I represent. In terms of artists and writers, there are many who I think fall within this line, but I don't know if it's fair to classify them in these terms. When I write, I wouldn't say this artist belongs to this philosophy or that philosophy. I write and I assume, from the artwork itself, and the elements that emerge, and that I pick up, I kind of believe that they are part of this universe. As far as Spinoza is concerned, there is a Spinozian formula and a form of monism, which is that there's only one substance in the world and an infinite number of manifestations. That had a profound influence on how we think about the world and everything in the world. I think, for the rest of my life, I will be dealing with that formula and trying to unearth the different consequences embedded in that formula.

N: Where do you see the path of the artist-philosopher leading in the future, and what might her role be—social, political, engaged purely in making, creating for and with others, or for its own sake?

D: Somebody said that one area of creative writing that hasn't been exhausted yet is writing philosophically about art. So that's the first thing, for me, what's exciting and also where the future is, in that as a genre, it hasn't been exhausted. Many other scholarly endeavors are exhausted and exhausting. I think this one is actually still brimming with life and the best is yet to come. That's where the artist-philosopher figures come in, as a producer and generator of that type of thought and writing.

In terms of politics, that's harder to answer. I'm not the best to answer that, just because of my general view on politics. I think, in life in general, everything that we write (or even that the artist philosopher would write) I consider to be political in a way. Because we're dealing with defining and redefining concepts which are sometimes everyday concepts, sometimes not everyday concepts, but they always impact the everyday in which we live. When you redefine a concept you redefine an entire landscape through which someone or something exists. When you redefine the landscape you redefine the relations in that landscape and that means politics. For me, politics is really basically relations between things, meaning people, and everything else outside of people amongst each other. In other words, art and writing about art is more important politically than what political science writes about politics, infinitely more important. To what extent it will change politics, that I do not know. I have no faith in politics. I don't you know trust people in politics to bring in proper change. I'm more concerned with how can we through writing and thinking change reality, what we philosophically call reality or a dream. How can we dream up a new reality? And I think that's our role, to dream up new forms of life by analysis and thinking through art, and what artists do.

N: Have you encountered any challenges in your experience in academia, or work writing about ideas adjacent to IDSVA’s program of study, especially as a critique of established truths about art and philosophy, from academic or scholarly circles? How do you or colleagues of yours,  thinkers and artists, respond to these ideas in your experience?

D: Yes, I have encountered many obstacles but so have many other people. It's a little weird talking about yourself in this regard, and this is only meant, again, for a new generation of scholars and writers. The first obstacle… when I was a graduate student, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to write and think the way most of academic writing writes and thinks. I decided I’d just kind of do it the way I think is best. In some sense, it's arrogant and in other senses it's humble; arrogant perhaps because you think you can follow your own path instead of following a path that's there, but humble in the sense that you want to respect and show admiration through the thought and work to authors that you love. If I do things differently than that, in a way, I'm betraying those that I love. For me it was immoral, that kind of crazy concern, of satisfying my admiration for people that constantly influenced me. So that means you're going to be strange sounding to many people, or in just the general context of academic departments. Most of the doors were closed for me, which is totally fine, because there was always a door that opened. You only need one door to open. Slowly, little by little, you know a door here, and a door there. Then a door opened where there was a little context, and where I was allowed to pursue my crossing of boundaries, and stylistic experiments, and so on. I was able to to kind of inscribe my own ways of thinking, collecting, and assembling. I could only really work in the context I had chosen and there aren’t many like it. You know when you’ve found ideas that are similar.

IDSVA is one of the few contexts where I can actually be myself. That's why I said I kind of knew immediately this would be great for me because you recognize a context that allows for these crossing of boundaries and a different way, a different angle of looking at things, and unfolding things. By that I just mean practically, it’s not a straight art history or straight history of philosophy program, but a philosophical thinking and writing about art. Normally, that type of engagement and angle is not really possible in art history departments, and it would also not be possible in philosophy departments. Maybe somewhere but it’s extremely rare.

N: I can relate to the feeling of not wanting to betray the thinkers that most speak to you. Sometimes, I’ll over explain what the thinker thought, because I feel like if I don't do that, then I'm allowing for misinterpretation, which obviously I can’t help either way. It's like you want to use the thinker for where you want to go, but at the same time it can feel a little cheap sometimes to just use them to say whatever you want to say.

D: Yeah it does. But you have to be careful, always, not to ‘over explain’ them. I think what we're looking for, is to inhabit the spirit of your favorites. You know, so you don't need to become just a superior scholar on your favorite authors. You want to, in a way, continue where they stopped or continue with the questions that they engaged with. So for me, it's in inhabiting that spirit, and this requires discipline, again, not to compromise.

N: I wonder whether or not you'd agree with this: It amounts, almost, to the difference between being a philosopher and a scholar of a philosopher or the history of philosophy. When you talk about inhabiting the spirit of a thinker, it seems like you’re talking about taking up their way or their method of thinking, and moving that forward in your own way, as opposed to just the ability to reiterate what someone else has said already.

D: Absolutely. I think unfortunately what we see today is, mostly in all disciplines, we see the historians rather than thinkers, and the universities are promoting that, and encouraging that, because it's very difficult to assess who is a good thinker and who is a good philosopher immediately. It takes time for an institution or society to recognize a work and say—yeah, this is a work of a really good, unique thinker. People don't want to risk it. They would rather just become historians of a thinker, and get legitimacy as a historian of a thinker, rather than risk being a philosopher. Choosing to pursue philosophy on the other hand, and maybe being recognized, but maybe not; it can be an odd situation. But yes, I think now it’s become a detrimental situation, because in most schools they are not teaching young people how to think, they're teaching them how to be superior academics, which is a different thing.

N: Is there anything you’d tell students and artists with all of these ideas in mind, but who are unsure of how to they might come to practice or use them in their own work, artistic or otherwise, and their lives generally, as they go about creating art and ideas after IDSVA?

D: That's hard. That's kind of like… I don't want to (and you have to include this disclaimer), I don't want to seem like a wise man on the top of the mountain, speaking to the youth. I'm not that old yet. But what's necessary? So, for any field, art and philosophy is no different, you need confidence in your work and thought. That is essential. This process of going through the program, and finishing the PhD, has to be also a process where you do overcome any doubts in your own capacity. And that’s hard. It's not only hard because you have to cover a lot of material, and write a lot of words, but you also have to overcome doubts about yourself and your own thought, and everyone has to go through it. I guess my advice is… you have to overcome all the doubts and no one can do that for you. Once you overcome those doubts things will be easier. You will feel good no matter what happens. You’ll know your limitations. Because we will always have limitations. You have to know, also, the unique angles that you have covered.The angles developed only through your own interests, through your own discoveries, and that will give you confidence. So that's one thing. The second thing is, compromise as little as possible. We have to compromise to a certain degree, but the less the better. Because, the less you compromise, the more you will be confident in your thought and there's nothing better than that. It's better than success.

N: So, you’re saying that, by going through the process, doing the work, etc., and we continue to have intuitions about a possible connection between ideas, or come upon an idea that in some way, maybe, is our own, that it’s important to learn to trust, or honor, or have faith in those instincts, and not waver or doubt them?

D: Yeah. But just to make a small correction; you’re never independent and you're never unique in your ideas. You are populated with all these authors that you learned about, that you love, that you're influenced by, or artists. You aren't alone, and you're never original in that regard. You are always augmenting someone or something, or correcting or departing from. You don't have to worry about: ‘Am I original or not?’ You do have to worry about: ‘Is this interesting? Has this been said hundreds of times before or not?’ Because, that's where this ‘originality’ lies. So that's one thing. The second thing is that you don't even need to have faith because if you do things according to your intuitions, then everything will be instinctual. You will not be able to do otherwise. So there's not even going to be a struggle of faith. You're not going to need faith because it's going to be on the level of immediacy and instinct.

N: Ok, so I apologize for this question in advance, but I’m interested: if you could create the world from scratch, what would it look like?

 D: Yeah. Well, I do actually think about that a lot. Because I'm interested in utopian thinking, even though now it's a cliche to think about utopia. But we live in a dream. We live in a dream constructed by forces outside of ourselves, forces that have come before us, and so it's important to consider alternative dreams. And that's what utopia is. This one is unsatisfactory. It is unjust and uninteresting the way it is; economically and politically. So, I think it's ridiculous to think that it’s good or satisfactory. And this is a pure influence of the old avant-garde, who were always complaining about the taste of the society in which they live. I also think that society has bad taste—ethically and aesthetically. So, I do think about, how we could construct things differently. I can’t tell you about how I would design it because that's a massive work. I don't know, but I would talk to really creative and interesting young designers, architects, and landscape designers, and so on. Politics is another thing I can’t go into how I’d redesign it, but some form of anarchic and communist elements would be necessary. I think, too, it's a question of what we consider community to be and and how can we redefine community in the 21st century, and the centuries to come. You have theories of community coming out of philosophy, in the twentieth century, that are amazing; from Maurice Blanchot to Georges Bataille to Jean-Luc Nancy to Giorgio Agamben. They are all kind of talking to each other in an amazing way. But we also have to think outside of that context, which is a European context. So, I'm thinking how to think about community now that we are conscious of our planetary paradigm and predicament, namely that we live on this planet. What does it mean to be on this planet, that's very vast? And yet, at the same time, there's more human beings now than ever before, by far, and they all concentrate on urban centers, which are collapsing. So, we have to think about redesign, redesigning the world, inhabiting other spaces sustainably, and in ways we have not inhabited them. And what does that mean? It’s another question of community. How do we live communally in ways which are not the same as the communities we have now? But I don't want to reveal answers to these questions just yet.

N: Is there any work of your own or that you'd like to point us to or interests that you're currently working on and playing with you just like to talk about?

D: Well, in light of your last question, what I'm working on now is a little series of works that go under the umbrella of a larger project, which is precisely about these issues of redesigning and restructuring the world. My illustrations and examples come predominantly from art and philosophy, so that's one big project that I have going. But where I could point you to is an essay I wrote for one of my favorite artists Tomás Saraceno. It's called ‘Putting Into Orbit.’ It was written for his catalog but it's a philosophical essay, in a way, and it addresses some of these issues we talked about. And, again, I’m drawing from his work.

N: Wonderful. This was fun, and you've offered up a lot to think about. Thanks.

D: Thank you.