The Legacy of Mark Lombardi: An Interview with Patricia Goldstone

Patricia Goldstone is a journalist, national award-winning playwright, and author of Interlock: Art, Conspiracy, and the Shadow Worlds of Mark Lombardi. Interlock is the first comprehensive biography of the acclaimed and controversial artist Mark Lombardi, who was found hanged in his studio in March 2000. After two days of desultory investigation, the police declared his death a suicide. Lombardi is known in art circles as the first artist to “do metadata” and, possibly, the first great artist of the 21st century. His influence lives on, not only the art world but in the worlds of computer science and cyber-security.

Let's start by asking - what made you write the book?

It was one of those "Ah-ha!" moments.  I saw a piece about Lombardi in the Wall Street Journal a year after his death.  What drew my eye was one of those cute little pencil sketches the Journal does so well-- There was this goofy-looking artist foreground, with one of his drawings raying out behind his head.  I squinted at the drawing, trying to make it out, and said "Ah-ha! That's an interlock! How strange -- here's one of our nation's preeminent business journals, and they're not even making hay out of the fact that here was an artist who made art out of what's essentially an accounting tool, a form of flowchart tracing overly-cosy relationships between boards of directors." So I clipped it and filed it away in my oddities files, and didn't look at it again until I was finished with the book I was working on.  By then it was 2007, and the financial tiles were coming off the ceiling.  I started wondering if what Lombardi did had any connection to the financial crisis which was engulfing us, and that's when I began writing INTERLOCK.

Is there anything you've learned about Lombardi that you'd like to share that isn't in the book?

Well, actually there's a very direct link between Lombardi's work and the 2007-2008 financial crisis, what might be called the "grand interlock." Interlocks typically take years if not decades to complete.  You have to follow them from the base to the top of a kind of pyramid, where the top players finally emerge.  Lombardi, tragically, didn't live to see that, but it's the subject of the book I've been working on. 

How does the art of Mark Lombardi resonate in today's world?

He was the first artist to do metadata, but more than that, he created a continuous visual history of the interconnections between intelligence, organized crime, corporations and governments in the offshore, unregulated reaches of what is commonly called the shadow banking business; and the bubbles, scandals, and crashes it has caused. The shady middlemen who connect one drawing, or rather one scandal etc. to the next in his series of 26 monumental-sized works shed a lot of light on the counterintelligence crisis now engulfing the FBI in the wake of Trump's Russian debacle.  

It’s a kind of visual Wikileaks Lombardi made, long before Julian Assange and Ed Snowden came along, and it's enormously empowering. You don't have to be a quant analyst to figure out what's going on.  The narrative takes over, and makes sense out of the mystification of numbers.  He's even recognized for doing that in the computer science world, where's he's considered a pioneer in social network analysis and visual narrative, the technique by which supercomputers like those used by the NSA can, in theory, make huge data sets comprehensible.  In fact, one of the scientists I interviewed at Tim Berners-Lee's CSAIL lab at MIT told me that Peter Thiel's Palantir platform is actually Mark Lombardi's legacy.  I don't know how comfortable Mark would have been with that, given his own decidedly leftward political orientation.  I feel he was very much like one of the scientists who worked on the atom bomb, unleashing a force which could be used for good or for ill. Given the cyber-surveillance we're now living under -- and the catastrophic breaches which have just occurred -- I fear the scales are unfortunately tipping towards the bad side. 

Have you seen the collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Jeff Koons? How does that compare to Lombardi? Where is the art world headed? 

Oh, come on.  The Koons-Vuitton collaboration is an overpriced handbag, designed to appeal to people with a lot of money and not much sense (perhaps even some of the nouveaux-riches in Lombardi's drawings might be tempted to spend their ill-gotten gains!).  In that way, it may certainly be emblematic of the art world today, but I don't think there's much comparison between Lombardi and Koons.  They are both appropriation artists, but in very different ways.  Koons is famous for turning kitsch objects into art ( and, in the case of his collaboration with Vuitton, art into kitsch).  Lombardi did not court lucrative markets and in fact turned down what could have been a substantial  commission in order to keep working within a very specific frame of reference.  If I were to compare him to anyone, it would be to Marcel Duchamp, who took ordinary objects ( an interlock is an ordinary accounting tool) and transformed them into wide-ranging social critique.  Lombardi was a serious scholar, and the philosophical foundation of his work is very close to that of the Internet itself.  Some people do regard him as more of a journalist-researcher than an artist, but i feel very strongly that, because he was able to get at the big picture that lies beneath the surface of things, he has to be taken seriously as an artist, if not the first great artist of the information age, rather than someone who simply played to a commercial interest.  But then, you're talking to someone who really loathes Jeff Koons's work!  

What are you working on now?  

I'm bringing Lombardi's work into the present day, not only in terms of the 2008 crash but more pressingly current issues like Donald Trump's Russian problem and the accelerationist capitalism of cronies like Peter Thiel and Robert Mercer.  But, more than just this election, this new book is about an unseen, unelected player, a master-builder of monopoly capitalism who shaped the American Century from the Panama Canal to the Panama Papers.  I'm also working on a new book commission which promises to be an equally interesting story.  And on a dramatic adaptation of INTERLOCK.

Thanks for your time.

Readers can learn more about INTERLOCK here >>

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