Conversations with Creators: New Media Maestro/Writer ERYK SALVAGGIO

This ongoing project explores the roots and systems of creativity.

Many featured creators will be amateurs. Many will be professionals you’ve never heard of and may
never hear of again. What they have or have not accomplished is irrelevant—if someone harbors a creative spark, a unique way of seeing the world, and uses an outlet to interpret life, they qualify. [Full introduction to the series]


Eryk Salvaggio, whose age is a mystery to most, currently lives in Bangor, Maine and is moving to Fukuoka-ken, Kyushu, Japan in August. His creative milestones include (deep breath): Having his net art covered by the New York Times; publishing a book of poetry (under an assumed name); VJ’ing in Spain (twice)/having lit cigarettes thrown at him while performing at a warehouse rave in London; being published on the McSweeney’s website (twice); reaching 7,000 downloads for his folk-ambient-idm-glitchpop musical project, The Twombley Spiders [many of these achieved at preposterously young ages]. He ran the webzine ‘1000 Ridiculous Tragedies,’ which included early writing from people like the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Videogum’s Gabriel Marc Delahaye, and he recently officiated the wedding ceremony of former Conversations with Creators guest Alicia Mullins.

Brief editorial note: Eryk and I edited each other, in turns, at the University of Maine’s campus paper. We function as part-time friends and the full-time Lennon/McCartney of aspiring feature writers, sharpening each other, inciting jealousy in one another, and most likely inevitably devolving into full-on rivals in time. It’s undetermined who will write the journalistic equivalent of the masterful ‘Imagine’ and who will pen the comparatively watery ‘Band on the Run,’ but Eryk’s responses here lead me to believe I will trail him forevermore. Dude is a genius. But he’s older than me, so I’ll cower behind that excuse for now. Also, his beard destroys mine. Here we go [all photos herein are Eryk’s—see more on his Flickr]:

ZD: Okay. Is there one creative medium you identify yourself with?
ES: My real talent lies in taking pasta and gluing it into frames to resemble celebrities. Honestly, though, no. I don’t identify with one medium, which is stressful. I wish I could be a “net artist” or a “musician” or a “writer” and really sell that angle, but I can’t. So I just do a bunch of stuff for free.


Fine. What was the first creative pursuit you got into, or the one you found to be the best fit?
If you asked me as a child what I wanted to do, I wanted to be a filmmaker. Then I wanted to be a writer. Then I wanted to be a visual artist. When I was, like, 9, I typed out the word “rainbow” on a piece of paper and framed it. Then when I was 12 I wanted to be a DJ. When I was 15, I wanted to be Trent Reznor, and started an electronic music project with a terribly pretentious name. Soon after that I was in a god-awful punk band and started playing around with conceptual art, like Fluxus and the Situationists, and street art, and all of that business. From there I got on the Internet and was stunned, for the first time, by all that space, and started cramming all of this stuff into it. Then I got into poetry, short stories and started a webzine, ‘1000 Ridiculous Tragedies.’ Then in 2008 I got a camera and started getting into photography. And blah, blah, blah. Point is: I’m a dilettante. I fluctuate between projects, for better or ill. I’ve never seen a blank surface I didn’t want to play around in: Canvas, web sites, paper, sidewalks, the air around my ears.

Did you choose to create so relentlessly, or was it more a case of it choosing you?
I think I chose to be a space invader. From a young age, I remember thinking it would be great to live in a house where you just made everything yourself. There was no point looking like everyone else, no point having the same furniture, you know? And that spirit has compelled me, in my best moments, to kick my ass out of its laziest gears and go do something. It’s an interesting question. I like what Ira Glass has to say about creativity: It’s a force of will. Just like you have to convince yourself to drag your legs to the floor on a rainy day and get moving, you need to sit down and craft the hell out of the things you want to be good. But at the same time, I don’t craft, really, except for my music and writing. I get out and make the other stuff, but then I don’t sit and shape and obsess and poke, and that’s the difference between someone like me and someone who gets somewhere.

We’ll see. I think you’ve already been to seven shades of somewheres. But when you’re working in so many different forms—writing, photography, new media projects—are there specific lines drawn between those, purposeful times and places for them, or not so much?
I have been trying to articulate my particular fascinations. They are, in no particular order, and capitalized to look important and meaningful: Nostalgia, The Opening of Spaces, Authenticity, and Propaganda for Human Decency. All of this stuff informs all of my stuff, whether I’m writing a poem, taking pictures or hacking an old NES game to make ‘Abraham Lincoln’s Kung Fu Pagoda.’ The “medium” is just a vehicle that those themes get to ride around in.

What’s your actual relationship with creativity?
I don’t feel valuable as a human being if I haven’t created something and had it seen. It took me a long time to come to terms with that, because it reeks of insecurity and fear, but as I’ve come to terms with it, that insecurity and fear has been drained out. Now I just know I like it when people look at or read or listen to or laugh about the things I make. But it can be uncomfortable, at times, if I am in a dry spell or busy with work-day frustrations and time, time, time. Always time.

You seem like a damned restless creator. Accurate?
I am absolutely a restless creator. I do go for very long periods without “releasing” anything. I’ve given myself certain rituals—a photograph a day, for example. And there’s a lot of emphasis now in micro-creativity: Digital snapshots, blogs, Twitter messages. But by god, have you ever looked at Twitter and had writer’s block? That is a low day—“I pretend I’m a writer, but I can’t even come up with 140 characters.”

Are you imaginative? Does it matter in terms of creating?
You know, no—I consider myself experimental. All of my output is based on, “Let’s see what happens when we do this.” Which makes a lot of failure: I decided, once, to record a reggaeton album, for example. The only thing even close to reggaeton that I have ever listened to, in my entire life, was Shaggy’s ‘Mr. Boombastic.’ Needless to say, it was an atrocity. Someday, if I am angry at the world, I’ll throw the mp3 on Limewire or whatever people use these days. So—am I imaginative? I guess. But I think experimentation is what really drives the stuff I do.

How about originality. Is it possible to attain? Is that even the point?
I really fall into the school of people who says everything is a recombination of everything else. And I know a lot of people hate that, and I don’t blame them, because it seems like people really want to be original and unique and art is really an avenue for those people to feel that way. And you can zoom in or out to frame the answer: Well, that sock you’re knitting is unique, as socks go. But knitting is not “original,” you know? But every person has an infinite number of combinations at their disposal. It’s like DNA. All culture has these strands and you combine them into new forms and make those old bones dance again. A kitten is always mom and dad and maybe a couple mutations, but a kitten is always still totally awesome, it doesn’t have to be playing basketball on a surfboard or whatever.

Do you work for an audience or yourself, or somewhere in between?
I make things for this imagined audience of critics that I engaged with when I was, like, 14 and shooting a lot of self-righteous, enraged e-mails about revolution to art professors and intellectuals who didn’t yet realize they could ignore idiot kids on the Internet. A lot of that dialogue is still internalized. And when I make art, I tend to think about what the most jaded connoisseur of whatever I’m doing is going to see and find trite. It’s a very dumb thing, probably, but I’m glad I have a handful of totally obnoxious hipster friends, because it keeps me challenged on a personal level to break down that hipster barrier to pleasure. A lot of times I’m happy to make trite stuff. I love simple dumb pop music structures, for example; my pictures have bright colors and it’s exploding and shiny and absolutely banal to anyone who knows anything about photography, but…shrug. Ultimately I am making the stuff I want to see, but having other people to show it to is a nice way to keep it challenging.

Do you create at certain times or places or in specific moods?
When I’m bored.

Creative heroes. Go.
Warhol, JODI, JD Salinger, Woody Allen, David Foster Wallace, Ira Glass, Errol Morris, Richard Brautigan, Ryan McGinley, Lynch, Tarantino, George Maciunas, Barthes, Jean Baudrillard. I’ll let people who really care sort them out.

How much time do you spend on your passion? Any way you can quantify it.
Never enough.

Your proudest creation so far?
The happiest thing I’ve done and actually put out there has been my music project’s latest, and probably last, release, ‘The Twombley Spiders and the Whiskey-Fueled Sparrow.’ But I am also happy with a short story I wrote a while back. I hadn’t written fiction in about four years.

Something you’d really like to create?
I’d love to eventually make a film or a novel, or even a book of short stories. I’ve been “meaning to get around to that” for about 20 years.

Is there a specific piece of music or art or film or anything you’ve thought, “Damn, I wish I’d been the one who made that”?
I don’t know if I’d want to take someone else’s “thing” and have it under my umbrella, but there are some pieces of craft that you just stop and say, “This is uniquely, perfectly theirs.” I just thought this, specifically, about Sophia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation,’ David Foster Wallace’s essay about cruises, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,’ David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’ and pretty much anything Wes Anderson does. If you’re lucky in life you hit it out of the park once, some of these guys do it three, four, five times? It’s astounding and humbling.

Something typical that inspires you?
It went like this: Girls, self-doubt, boredom, girls, “cred,” and now, the sheer joy of it.

Anything unpredictable thing that inspires you?
Onigiri. It’s this Japanese rice ball, usually stuffed with some spicy fish, wrapped in seaweed and eaten fresh and cold. You can ask my girlfriend—I have a 50-50 chance of literally crying with joy when I eat one of them. I read that white rice releases serotonin, so I blame that.

What five qualities should a creative person possess?
1. Chooses difficult things over easy ones.
2. Cuts excess distracting fat.
3. Gives up control (but not responsibility).
4. Makes something every day.
5. Thinks twice or doesn’t think at all, depending.

Eryk will blog about life in Japan at ThisJapaneseLife. Other spectacular examples of his writing (in feature form) can be found here and here.

Previously: Writer Bastian Kresser
Next time:
Another all-around creative maestro, Matthew Lizzotte