For her series Romance & Power, 032c’s Bianca Heuser speaks with influential people from a variety of industries about the politics, potentials, and pitfalls of modern love, and the role romance plays in their work. The conversations are paired with artworks concerned with the same tensions.
Romance lives behind closed doors, and yet we know that private and public are inextricably intertwined. Naturally, our experience of the world shapes our idea of romance, and vice versa. Love is a sociological reality. Your concept of devotion – and who you give it to – reveals more than just personal preferences. It speaks volumes on your political inclinations, and it pervades your creative output.
When I called up Natasha Stagg earlier this summer, I reached her at the Montauk library. She had taken time out of her Long Island beach day to talk to me. How fortunate, I thought, that the nearest source of wifi also happens to be a public space offering a unique amount of privacy: try finding place deader than an air-conditioned library on a hot summer day. Stagg is a senior editor at V Magazine and V Man, and earlier this year published her debut novel Surveys with Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents imprint.
BIANCA HEUSER: Are you in love right now?
NATASHA STAGG: Yes, I think so.
Does romance find its way into your work as well?
I think if I didn’t have a relationship to go home to – I don’t live with my boyfriend, but I obviously spend a lot of time with him, we’re at the beach together right now – my work at V would be a lot more stressful for me. Trying to date in New York, go on dates, and also have a hectic work life… Right now, my relationship feels like a really relaxed other half of my day. But I guess that’s not always how I’ve viewed relationships. I’ve had ones that were a lot more dramatic than anything else going on. I think a lot of it has to do with my personal need for some kind of balance. Sometimes I need more drama, so I’ll probably date someone more dramatic or subconsciously start fights with my partner, but right now I feel my life needs to be less dramatic, so my relationship is really chill.
So right now it works more as a separation between your office hours and private life. Do you think of your work as romantic though?
Maybe. It definitely feels as emotional. I had a co-editor at V, my friend Patrick Sandberg, who I used to work with super closely every day. We would sit so close to one another and just be in constant conversation. Then when we got home we would still be texting. I could see that as something romantic.
Interviewing people, creating a sense of intimacy in a very short period of time, can also be a bit like wooing someone.
Definitely. I have had a really hard time getting used to that idea. When I started working for magazines, I didn’t really consider that part of it. I thought I’d be in total seclusion most of the time, but that’s not true at all. Most of your days are spent interacting with other people, either in meetings or interviews. It does sometimes feel like you’re flirting with them. Like a really awkward first meeting after which you have to immediately ask them a ton of personal questions. Of course that feels romantic. But more than that, it just feels terrifying. I don’t think I’m a very good interviewer. Especially in person. With eye-contact..?
Ilya Lipkin, Untitled, I Am Vicky, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Lars Friedrich, Berlin.
I think doing it in person is such an advantage: acting towards them, you can show someone you’re paying attention with your body language.
Have you ever interviewed someone who’s been interviewed 100,000 times and they’re just so unforgiving? They’ve heard every question. They don’t have time for you to figure out your angle. It’s the worst! Even if they’re not super famous. When you interview people who are in their 60s or 70s, they generally have been doing the thing they’re doing forever. Whatever it is, it needs to get press, so they have to do interviews, and I’m sure at a certain point they’re just so over it. I don’t want to interview those people. I just want someone else to do it.
Yeah: “I’ve already answered these questions five times today!” There are some twisted power dynamics at play there, too. How do you think these dynamics and hierarchies might impact our romantic lives?
One part of getting older and achieving whatever you had in mind is that you have to take into account that a lot of people close to you aren’t achieving those things and that creates a hierarchy without you even realizing it. It’s really sad for me sometimes. I still think of myself as kind of a loser for the most part. I still can’t get over the fact that a lot of my friends consider me to have achieved a lot of success because I’ve had a book published and I’m an editor at a magazine. That part blindsides me sometimes. I don’t want to be the one who took life too seriously later on.
Do you think of your work as political?
What’s the best relationship advice you’ve ever gotten?
I don’t know if I get a lot of relationship advice. I’m probably not a person most of my friends would try to give advice to. They probably know that I don’t take it very well. I don’t like being told what to do. But when I was single, a lot of my friends kept saying that I complained too much about it, and that I should enjoy it. That was good advice.
What idea of romance did you grow up with?
Hmm… none. Well, my parents didn’t get along for most of my childhood and then they got divorces when I was 14. I was like, “what else is new.” A really annoying teenager. My sister was very emotional about it, but I was like: I don’t care. Romance is dead. Already really angsty. I didn’t have that many romantic role models. There was nothing that could’ve convinced me that marriage was anything to look forward to. All my friends’ parents got divorced eventually.
“If you follow a lot of those self-help type of rules, you’re not going to get to know the other person well anyway.”
For it to work, does love need to be based on equality?
I mean, no one can really be someone’s equal. You can try, but I don’t think that’s ever truly happened. Maybe the best way of thinking about it is that the most equal relationship is one that keeps changing hands, going back and forth on the scale of power and security. Sometimes I feel that throughout a relationship I’m the more insecure one and that means we’re not equal. I like the person more than they like me. So maybe you can be in an equal relationship as long as the direction changes later on.
That’s a good point: power dynamics aren’t necessarily fixed.
As we’re talking about it, it’s also weird to generalize about relationships. It feels so strange and counterintuitive to me. In my relationships, romantic or otherwise, I am looking for people who don’t adhere to those specific pieces of advice. If you follow a lot of those self-help type of rules, you’re not going to get to know the other person well anyway. It will probably just self-implode. I think I’m more attracted to people who might say: “We’re not going to be equal, ever.” Or just blatantly break one of the rules. That kind of power play is what I’m attracted to in Chris Kraus’s books. She always talks about wanting a S&M relationship, which clearly is not just about the sex. There’s this hovering image of what the relationship could be, but it never is actually going to be that, and so she just feels totally desperate – which then makes her feel more passionate. I totally relate to that, too. I need to feel like something is outside of my control for it to be an interesting relationship.
The interview series Romance & Power is published monthly on 032c.com and paired with artwork that concerns itself with corresponding tensions. The above photograph by the Berlin-based artist Ilya Lipkin is taken from his recent solo exhibition I Am Vicky at Berlin’s gallery Lars Friedrich that took the romantically charged, yet intensely regulated relationship between patient and psychoanalyst as its subject.