The Operating System: Détournement Radical Documentation with Lynne DeSilva-Johnson

The Operating System is not a conventional place in any sense of the word. It is a press, a community, a space for building, growing, and sharing –it’s a village of humans doing what they love most, what they feel the world needs, and giving what they can from deep within themselves. It might be better to say that The Operating System is a concept, a technology, a municipality unto itself and the world.

I don’t want to spoil the interview, so I won’t say too much more. However, The Operating System is an entity you should know about. By embodying more than one identity, The Operating System represents ourselves, really –a mirror reflection of who we are as humans, as visionaries. Ready for reform, reader? Join the movement that is The Operating System. Whether you’re a pioneer or an artist, there is plenty of information to be absorbed and plenty to distribute. And the force that drives it all is one single, incredible human, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson. The truth is this interview in itself is a blessing as Lynne wears several hats simultaneously, but does so graciously, effortlessly and with all the ethereal buoyance of a Venus child.

It was such a pleasure to learn about what makes The Operating System tick and hear the soundtrack to The Operating System’s formation. Lynne DeSilva-Johnson talks myth, digital traces, notions of healing and time, mirrors, and being an eco-system to herself and unto the world.


The vision of The Operating System is rather broad and ever evolving; and while I love what you’ve said in the Wave Composition interview about how flexible the concept is, could you express the mission in less than 100 words?

The OS is a queer run small press, arts organization, and online platform/magazine based in Brooklyn NY. We focus on underrepresented voices, mixed-genre, avant-garde, and politically critical work, as well as on community engagement with process writing and storytelling across creative disciplines, geographies, and language barriers. In 2017, the organization will publish 20+ titles, and is expanding to include a Bowery Poetry imprint and other coalitions. The OS seeks to be an empowerment organization, transparent in our administration, and promotes an open source environment in which creative practitioners collect and redistribute intellectual and material resources for community development.

For those who have never heard of The Operating System, gasp, how might you entice the public to follow the work, the mission, the religion?

We live in a deeply palimpsestic, richly chaotic, high volume environment – I’m never surprised if someone hasn’t heard of The OS! But for anyone who lands on our doorsteps, there’s surely something here for you; and not only to read, but to do. The OS is all about permission and offering agency — as well as providing practical strategies and resources. Whether you’re looking to publish, wanting to be a better, more involved citizen, trying to kick start a creative practice, or seeking to simply learn more about groundbreaking, innovative individuals and organizations in the arts and beyond, there are deep channels of inspiration here for you.

In terms of entertaining futurist ideologies and generations, what would you hope that those who have yet to come into existence would take away from The Operating System?

One important thing that The OS stresses is that the archival nature of what we produce is of equal import to the “end result” art form. I’m very concerned with the future of born digital media, and with the uncertainty with which we look ahead at what will remain for the archive — when we consider the myths around art and artists from all mediums, we can see so clearly that these stories have been built from a combination of fantasy and a smattering of “facts,” drawn from newspapers, magazines, and then various ephemera. Artists and writers for centuries have left their work behind, but so too letters, independently produced publications, and so forth and so on. We write (and, critically, correct) the histories of these times not only from the institutions and periodicals that produce the ‘official’ story, but, whenever possible, from whatever evidence the practitioner leaves behind that can offer hints as to their process, relationships, and so forth. And ultimately, while artists work of course is vitally important, these stories about artists’ lives and practices have such massive impact – more so on future generations than on their own, really — and so especially in an age where we have to wonder whether our digital traces will even be recoverable, whether we will offer the rich ephemera up for future study, I stress for The OS that we write directly for these stories, ourselves, by including commentary and back matter in every volume. I also facilitate the production of documents for ephemeral performances that might otherwise have years of rich collaborative process history totally lost to the record. And, I’m working actively to open source and document the process of building this organization, and to build resources and infrastructure. All of these things have significant ramifications in the future — whether for individual or organizational modelling of personal, professional, or collective creative practice, as much as for serving as a historical touchstone for future generations seeking for insight, wisdom, or even simply case studies of art making in this time.

You mention that, for you, The Operating System is like looking into a mirror, but would you say that this same philosophy applies to your viewers? And in what way(s)?

I don’t know if I would want to say The OS is like a mirror for me without the rest of the context within which I said it being immediately legible and making a frame for the statement. But I can still approach an answer, which is: yes and no. Yes, insofar as I feel a true mirror (which is to say, one that’s more that reflective glass) would in fact reflect back to any viewer a swirling, evolving, energy — a complex network of systems, requiring upkeep and modification to thrive. So in this way, The Operating System seeks to be a mirror of not only us as individuals but also of humans as an ecosystem, and we can learn more about ourselves as individuals when we can see these aspects of ourselves (singular and plural) in the theoretical “mirror.” However, the answer can also be no, but conditionally: whether or not viewers have the capacity to see themselves in a space where duality and the in-betweens are explored and celebrated has less to do with whether The OS reflects them than it does their comfort level with uncertainty. But whether most people can “see” themselves, in mirrors theoretical or actual, might be the real question we’re dancing around here, n’est-ce pas?

How does healing ourselves and reshaping our notions of self and society better prepare us for art, the future, and transitioning?  

Healing ourselves both individually and at the systems level is so essential to the mission of The Operating System. A spiritual teacher of mine, Eileen O’Hare, told me once that this practice was my medicine practice (of healing myself and others) and I believe that deeply, though it’s not necessarily what I speak to immediately in interviews, etc (when I’m not asked directly). I don’t need to force that language or understanding of the work on those not comfortable or familiar with the idiom. However, in more general terms, I land on Krishnamurti: this is a sick society, and therefore if we cannot seem to adapt to it, that is actually a sign of our health. But we must, must, heal ourselves and each other if we are to live here much longer. I don’t feel that mincing words is helpful anymore. The earth will recover, and time is very different for a planet than for a human — but if we’d like to be part of that transition, we need to heal on many levels. Art is essential in that healing process, and healing is essential for us to make (and be able to receive) the art that will help us remember our humanity (and our planet, and our birthright as star stuff with the capacity to sustain or destroy).

What is your artistic routine like? Do you have a schedule or are you spontaneous?

You can plan for spontaneity. I have to be very, very rigorous and disciplined with the amount of work that I do (ie: right now I am teaching at Pratt Institute, working on 30+ OS titles, leading a workshop at Bowery Poetry club, performing frequently, working to create two different imprints with coalition organizations, writing a series of 50 articles about NEA funding in all 50 states for Drunken Boat, and leading ACLU people power activism events, among other things), which means that my own artistic practice looks more like structuring in hours that I sit with particular art materials or pen and paper, and make work. That said, I always have a notebook with me, and certainly am I open to flashes of inspiration while doing other things, and I’ll certainly open another window on the computer, or jot down phrases or conceptual ideas to come back to. I make lots of lists. Art ideas and scheduling time for play — are on the list. Some days, I don’t get to write or make art — but I try to at least draw every day, a little bit. Constraint helps. I give myself little assignments, and also do ekphrasis.

Name three people who have inspired you in creating The Operating System.

Diane di Prima’s book, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, has been inspirational to me on many levels — and in many ways informed the founding of The Operating System. What I took from the book was more about composing a creative life than anything specific, but it helped me see possibility and promise in this different kind of life (as well as in different kinds of relationships) than most people seek out. The sort of DIY ethos that she and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) brought to The Floating Bear certainly played into not only seeing myself able to build this life but also to physically, personally, make something like this real, with limited resources.

Then, too, always, Buckminster Fuller, whose ethics and vision have inspired me for more than twenty years. His maxim about not trying to fix the broken system but rather building a new model that makes it obsolete has been my mantra for as long as I can remember. I do have an Urban Design masters, which might make this make more sense, but I found Bucky before I got it! Ha. I’m a systems thinker, and so Fuller, and folks like Gregory Bateson (I also spent a lot of time as an anthropology scholar) have been hugely influential on my thinking in ways that have deep impact on The OS.

And then, well, Ammiel Alcalay, who was my professor at the Graduate Center, he was sort of the lynchpin in helping me shake off whoever I was trying to be for other people, through really engaged, informed exposure to the cross sections of politics and poetics across the 20th century. His love for Olson, and seeing Olson leave a government job for a life of poetry, and working through Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone, and all the little magazines, all the independent work that came through pure will, and always in resistance — there was no question these were my predecessors, and I realised that with his encouragement.

Who would you love to see at The Operating System?

Courageous, disciplined, radical creators of all stripes who are ready to really live a life dedicated to change rather than attempting to consume “activism” in those hours of the week that don’t conflict with their existing calendars. This is the time for sea change, and we’re building a crew.

If you could give The Operating System a soundtrack, who would be on it?

Anyone who makes any person working with me inspired, driven, or happy. But —

If you’re asking what *I* listen to when working on OS stuff… how much time do you have?

I’m very inspired by Brian Eno’s approach to music, and I listen to a lot of Boards of Canada when I need to get work done. Spotify says I listen to a lot of hard bop and “post bop.” “Passages,” a Ravi Shankar – Philip Glass crossover, is one of my favorites. All the Ethiopiques recordings, The Bad Plus, Hiatus Kaiyote, D’Angelo, Blonde Redhead, Thundercat, Dirty Projectors, Kamasi Washington, Bonobo, Message to Bears, Ali Farka Toure… my cat really likes jazz piano. I also just will put on WXQR or WBGO — classical or jazz radio — for the whole day. When I run a workshop I like to play Nino Rota’s Fellini soundtracks and other gypsy jazz, Django Reinhardt stuff. It’s got great circusy-play energy.


Find The Operating System here and here.


WORDS BY:  Jacklyn Janeksela

jacklyn janeksela, MFA is an artist and an energy. Find her work @ art mugre, jota cuadrada, &female filet. Her music with The Velblouds @ band camp.

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