Vibrating Borders: a Conversation with Kate Kremer

Photo by Jorge Luna

“It feels important to register that an Obama official actually did say that a 16 year old who’s killed by a drone should have had a more thoughtful father if he didn’t want to be killed by a drone. It’s important to register that those things are real.”

—Kate Kremer

I recently spoke with playwright, director, and independent publisher Kate Kremer about the remount of her play Term of Art (playing at JACK, January 3rd – 12th)I saw the first production of Term of Art when it was part of the Bring a Weasel and a Pint of Your Own Blood Festival at The Public Theater in 2018, and still think fondly and often of its demanding and virtuosic examination of how language and law define and manipulate borders and bodies.

The play, like much of Kate’s work, is a collage of archival materials.  With a heart aching for justice and a mind like an x-acto knife, Kate gathers Supreme Court transcripts, art from detainees at Guantanamo, reporting on the current human rights atrocities at our Southern border, bureaucratic justifications for drone strikes, and diaristic writings on failures both civic and private, and assembles a play that seeks not only to make injustice visible, but to make palpable our — her, my, your — implication in its machineries.

Speaking with Kate, I sit in quiet awe at the scales at which her mind works.  She has a knack for the key detail, whether that be a particular word a Supreme Court justice likes or the way a stranger holds their wrist on the subway.  Yet her thoughts are sweeping — she speaks and thinks in Proustian sentences that verge on full paragraphs. But her mind’s trajectories are non-linear and non-Euclidean — turning around a thought, Kate probes it deeper; as her thinking deepens, its scope widens.

And yet, as you will see in our conversation below, Kate is keenly aware of how thoughts and words place themselves on bodies.  It is this fusion of the intellectual with the embodied-social that I so admire in Kate’s writing. Even a chance encounter with Kate will make clear that the politics in her writing run remarkably deep, the only possible result of her socially engaged, civically conscientious living.

Below is an edited transcript of our recent conversation, which ranged from the aesthetic (how to stage a legalistic text), to the civic (where and how is the law failing), to the philosophical (what is the law, anyway?).

JL: How are rehearsals so far?

KK: Rehearsals are good. We got our feet pretty immediately after our first read through, which I’ve found with this play so important, because so much of the language gets activated by being put in a physical relationship on stage.

JL: When you were working on the text, how much were you thinking about the physical life? 

KK: This time around I understood better what the physical life was. When I wrote it for the Weasel Festival at the Public, my initial vision was that it would be very still, and that if anything there would be hand gestures. And then it so immediately became apparent in rehearsal that in order for the language to be heard, it had to be put in the body. And so this time I knew that, and I knew that we would shift quickly from one physical relationship into another, sometimes using that to blur across different scenes. But there are hardly any stage directions in the text. Most of it we find in the room.

JL: The text is, as I remember from the last version, very dense — delightfully so. As you’re thinking about the staging of it, what are you looking for? What’s the juice that the physicality and the language are making together?

KK: So one of the things that makes the text dense is that there’s so much bureaucratic language. There’s a lot of the justices thinking on their feet and processing difficult legal questions. And then there’s also language that could feel like it’s narratorial: it’s language about what’s happening in the world, or it’s interior monologue, and so it’s not in scene. And so the thing that the physicality allows me to do is to take those two different kinds of language, the bureaucratic and the interior, and to put those into a human space. The goal is to make a bureaucratic question visible spatially, which makes it more comprehensible, easier to follow, and then more emotional.

In writing and rewriting the text, I also wanted to create more spaces where we sunk in a little more deeply. In the last draft, we moved really fast from scene to scene. And we still do that —there’s still a lot of these internal borders that people are crossing. But this time there are some longer scenes which play out between two characters, where you can really feel them negotiating a problem in a more traditional play way. And I think that gives the audience a little bit of an anchor, and the performers something to drop into and then move out of.

JL: For the Weasel Festival, we were all asked to write in response to Martin Ramirez. How much are you still thinking him?

KK: I’ve been thinking a lot about his work this week, though he’s faded a bit into the background for me. The thing that we talked so much about that summer was the way that repeated lines in one area can mean one thing, and then the same lines repeated at a different angle or in a slightly different way can mean something else in a different part of the canvas. Which is part of what I’m thinking through with Term of Art — that the same word can mean one thing in one context and another thing in another, and that the dislocation of language from one context to another produces a manipulative space. It can be a space of injustice, in which you’ve turned the meaning of something to control someone else’s body. Or it can be a space of increasing justice, if you’re changing the meaning of the law for the better. 

Law is made of things that are like one another, that get repeated, and picked up. When the Supreme court looks at court history, they’re looking back to try to find situations that have been similar to the one that they’re examining. So there’s a real pressure to understand things as similar, and then to find the barrier that makes a thing different. That relationship between sameness and difference — I think about Ramirez work in that sense a lot. 

JL: You’ve also talked about Ramirez in relationship to the materials he uses.

KK: That’s still present for me. I’m thinking about the materials that artists use when detained or when limited in the ways that Ramirez was limited, or in the ways that the artists at Guantanamo are limited. Children in detention centers in the U.S. are often given art supplies as a way of coping with stress and grappling with the trauma in the moment. To look at these stories side by side, you see this really consistent echo across all of them of the kinds of work that you produce in a position of such containment and such confinement.

JL: What do you see in common across those cases?

KK: It’s how you draw on whatever you can find that is available. So for Ramirez, potatoes and saliva become a paste that you use to piece together envelopes and other scraps of paper. In Guantanamo, gravel from the prison’s exercise yard. A child in a detention center has taken a female restroom sign, flipped it over and used it as the ground on which they built a model of a church from their home. The materiality becomes a way of reworking the actual environment that you’re in, of reclaiming or reappropriating those spaces.

But I’m also thinking very much about the materiality of the law, and the fact that it’s also composed of real things that happen, and of cases that happen to go to trial. There’s so much chance and so much of the material of the actual world in the way that the law gets made. I think we tend to naturalize it, and to think of it as essential, and unified, and complete, and necessary. But in fact, it’s made of potatoes and spit. To be able to see those seams, and see the materiality of the law, is one of the projects of the piece.

JL: Thinking of Term of Art in the context of your other work, I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say you have an archival interest. 

KK: Yes. For sure. I think that’s very fair. 


JL: So there’s a way in which found material seems of interest to you — diaries and journals, found language, your own or historical or usually both all put together. Which makes me think about collage. Does that seem like an appropriate word to describe your work?

KK: Absolutely. 

JL: What role does collage play in your thinking about the piece?

KK: This version of Term of Art is drawing on an even more disparate collection of materials than the last one. The Supreme court transcripts are still super present, but also congressional reports, journalistic reporting about Guantanamo and American drone policy, and also so much of my own writing shoved into the spaces. The play is definitely drawing on these actual materials, but I’m almost always manipulating them in some small way. There are sections that are verbatim, and it feels important to register that an Obama official actually did say that a 16 year old who’s killed by a drone should have had a more thoughtful father if he didn’t want to be killed by a drone. It’s important to register that those things are real. 

JL: Oh my god.

KK: But what I’m doing is, by cutting things the way that I’m cutting them, and by putting them in the proximity that I’m putting them in, I’m trying to make more audible the patterns that you wouldn’t see if you were just reading reams and reams of these cases. 

The thing that I’ve been thinking a lot with this draft is about how the negotiation of borders produces these nonsensical ethical positions. I talk a lot in the play about the case Mesa v Hernandez , and how a Mexican boy who is standing in Mexico and is shot across the United States border by a U. S. border patrol agent raises problems for the judges when they begin thinking about U.S. drone policy. How is that different from a pilot in Nevada operating a drone that strikes in Iraq? And you’re like, well, actually, they are very similar. And so the border in that case becomes this arbitrary line where we’re like, well, because it’s happening in this “border region,” we’re going to decide that that’s important. 

But then you also begin to see questions about the age of people, like the 16 year old boy who was killed in a drone strike. The fact that he’s 16, rather than 15 — you can see the media following this logic: Well, he was 16, so he was almost an adult, so he was almost 17, which is very close to 18. And then we wouldn’t even be talking about him, because he would be an enemy killed in action, because that’s how we count people. If we’re striking in a region where we’ve decided it’s active combat, then all men over 18 who are killed are just enemies killed in combat. And so it’s the fact that he’s 16, and you’re like, well, he’s 16, so close to 18. 

And so you can see people making these moves where you’re shoving things to one side of the line or another in a way that I find blazingly nonsensical and blazingly troubling. I mean, you think about refugees who are waiting to have a determination made about their status, and they’re 17. All of a sudden time is of the essence, because there’s a very different procedure for a person who is 17 than there is for a person who is 18, because the person who is 18 gets deported. 

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the mushiness of those borders, and the law’s somewhat flexible approach to those borders, pushing people to one side or another depending on what’s convenient.

JL: How do you think through these ideas in the play?

KK: One of the things the play does is it sets up all of these things that could be little stops or little borders. They could feel like complete scenes that end, but instead, both in the writing and in the staging of it, we really try to blur the line and move people across those textual borders. It’s a way of thinking through the ways that they don’t have the intrinsic meaning that we ascribe to them. There’s also the “term of art” question of a line meaning one thing and then meaning another. There’s a language play that happens — how can I pick this up and look at it from a slightly different side? How can I echo this scene with a scene that is different and disturbing or is the other side of the rock. 

JL: I’m interested in your interventions in the text, as in the text that’s coming from you, Kate. Where is that coming from, and how do you think of it in relation to the found materials you’re also working with?

KK: I wrote the play in a period of really great frustration with writing. It felt really impossible and hopeless to write during the time that I was writing it. Both because it felt like writing doesn’t do anything, which, it doesn’t. And in a more selfish way, it felt impossible. I was running really hard up against the brick walls of my own insecurities and anxieties. So I was generating a lot of writing about not writing, or about failing to write, or about other kinds of failures. So a lot of my writing that’s in the play is nestled around those failures. But it also concerns my past failures of expression, where I’ve been unable to say what I wanted, or unable to take an action, or make a choice, or find my own emotions, or identify my own presence in the world or in my body. 

And so a lot of that language is more interior. And I like to put that alongside some of the particularly strange and tangled Supreme court muddles. Steven Briar became incredibly fertile for me, because he says things that are crazy and really just confusing. It’s so confusing how he speaks and who knows what he’s driving at. So taking his language, weirdly enough, became a way of writing into my own failures. 

JL: How does thinking about failure talk to your thinking about borders?

KK: I think it has partly to do with the transcriptionist in the play, who is attempting, and failing, to transcribe every word that’s said on stage.  There’s the sense that the failure is happening all the time, all around. The law is failing, the reporters are failing, there are failures of expression that happen at every stage and that have deeply human consequences. 

There’s a snippet from this case where a lawyer is talking to a judge on the bench and says something about “I argued this case before you, and the person who was deported then was murdered after being deported.” And the judge has to stop the proceedings to be like, “Wait, you said that I made this decision?” And the lawyer is like, “Oh no, no, no. In this court before you, I mean, before you were on it.” And the judge is like, “Whew! Oh man, okay, my heart rate can go down now.”

JL: Oh god.

KK: And you’re like, “No, it can’t! It can’t go down!” It’s still a massive failure. And the fact that you can’t necessarily in this instance trace your own implication in this situation doesn’t mean that you aren’t implicated, and that we aren’t part of a system that is just radically failing. And that we all aren’t, daily, missing things, and failing to notice, and failing to express things that are leading to people’s deaths.

JL: I’m interested in the fact that you described the borders as being “mushy.” Because what’s often very confusing to me about law is its very rigid, inhuman nature.  It sacrifices flexibility for consistency, which isn’t necessarily always a bad thing.

KK: You’re so, so right that the law makes those lines, and those lines do allow for protection sometimes. And you have to have a delineated system that can be applicable to a huge body of people. And yet, when you begin to listen to people grappling at those lines — and that is what is happening always in these Supreme Court cases, where people are meeting right on that border between one thing and another, and negotiating it — that negotiation does feel like it’s a space of mushiness, or of a space of change, or a space of wiggling, where you can move the line a little one way or another. And the Supreme Court justices are super conscientious about that, because they know how much every choice they make sets a precedent. 

And so with something like Bivins questions, which are related to privacy and violations of the fourth amendment, they become really anxious, because they long ago laid down a really hard line about what kind of damages they were going to allow people to seek from the federal government when their fourth amendment rights were infringed upon. So there’s a lot of anxiety about what happens if people can have access to more, that if we move this line, then the floodgates open. 

So it’s maybe less that they’re mushy than that they’re vibrating. They’re spaces of tension and examination. You really can watch these ethical questions being collapsed down to a question of how we negotiate a particular line. We want this line to hold, but we’re suddenly seeing the ways in which it’s vibrating with the pressure of inconsistency or a potentiality — we see a potential for a different kind of thinking. 

In a larger sense, how do you begin to change things structurally? If you want to move toward a system of restorative justice, if you want to move toward a system of greater environmental justice, how do you negotiate those lines in a way that preserves a system that is useful, but that understands the ethical problem at hand a little differently? 

JL: Do you want to take a shot at answering that question? 

KK: Oh God! I need to go to law school!

I think about the rights that corporations are granted, the ways that corporations end up with sometimes more human rights than people have. Or I think about the strangeness that Google has these rights as a company, but the redwoods don’t. Why don’t the redwoods have personhood in the way that Google does? And they do in some countries. It might be Colombia, where they’ve actually decided that the Amazon has certain human rights. It’s part of a larger articulation of the fact that the environment is actually integral to human happiness. And so to say that life and liberty are enshrined in our law must also be to say that environmental protections are also enshrined in law. And yet we continue to have a confusion around that, because trees don’t talk, and they never pay their lawyers.

[Ed. note: there is a case currently working its way up the court system in the U.S., Juliana v United States, arguing that the government’s failure to combat climate change violates the constitutional rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for children who will inherit an uninhabitable earth.  So there are windows of hope here, too, folks!]

KK: You can also move toward thinking about the law of being less about how do we punish this person, and instead about how do you set this situation right. I don’t know what those kinds of conversations would look like at the level of the Supreme Court — I wish I knew better what cases you could look to to think about, about that kind of thing. But I think there’s certainly a capacity for law to change really fast. 

Think about how quickly punishment can change. Foucault, in the beginning of Discipline and Punish, says that in a span of 60 years, we go from a system of corporal punishment to a system of penitentiaries. We go from blood to the clock. That happens in the course of 60 years, and it’s done — nobody is using corporal punishment anymore. 

It can happen so fast, internationally. All it takes is a reorientation of what we think law should do. If we think it shouldn’t actually steal people’s time, that it shouldn’t actually force people to be in prison for years and years on end, then we could make that change.

JL: It sounds to me like the way you’re conceiving of a legal system is almost like an epistemological system — how do we define things? What are the names we give to things? What are the things that fall into each category? And then how do that system organize the world? Thinking of the legal system as the algorithmic thought process for a large entity like a state. It’s how the state thinks, in a way. 

Part of what’s interesting about that to me, in the way you’re talking about how quickly things can change, and how permanent they seem, is that that’s how the mind works too, right? Your world seems so solid, and the way you think seems so necessary. And yet, it’s you. So you can change it. 

How consciousness changes is very mysterious. But it happens. And it happens on grand scales too. 

KK: I wonder if that’s part of the impulse in the play. One of the things we do is impose on a bureaucratic text physical intimacy. Often the romantic becomes this useful metaphor for us physically and staging Term of Art. And maybe it’s because it changes so quickly. We’ve got a cast of four, and so when two people are close to one another and then a third enters that space, immediately the relationships change. The two are pulled out of their orbit and a new relationship appears. 

On a day to day scale, we understand the romantic is something that does change. Feelings change. We are responsive to those shifts in our thinking. But we maybe aren’t always as attuned to the shifts that are happening at a larger scale, like the shifts that are happening in our national policy or in our immigration policy or in our government. Overlaying those maybe allows that changeability or that transitoriness to become more visible.

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