21 December 2011

Night of the Invasion of the Living Baby Jesus Eaters (or: Start the 'War on Xmas' Without Me)

Just because. Part of that because being that I'm about to hit to road for rounds of Seasonals. But also because most of that traveling will involve having a nice holidays in the company of some good folk. And because I hope your holidays shape up nicely, too.

Binge & Purge

In the course of recently trading comments about the passing of director Ken Russell, a friend observed:
"And nearly every film he made had a scene where someone writhes around in shit, mud, food etc. etc. I think he was working on toilet-training issues sometimes -- very 70s!"
And I suppose it was. Or it sometimes seems that way on reflection. It very much seemed that way over the years when I looked at some of the performance art of the era, particularly that of Paul McCarthy and the duo included above, the Kipper Kids. Lots of smearing of and wallowing in foodstuffs and/or anything that might vaguely resemble excreta. Never sure why that was exactly, why that sort of thing had some sort of resonance at the time, turning up as a trope that diagnostically pointed in the direction of some societal neurosis or something. Maybe something connected to the continuing popularity of Freud and psychoanalysis, perhaps? Or maybe it was the product of some sort of nagging puritanical cultural subconscious, a way of acknowledging and exorcising certain demons. Because it was the end of the postwar boom – a two-decade roll of middle-class affluence and all the consumerist, material benefits it'd brought about. And about how that culture of consumption had been driven by a boom in advertising in order to sell that ceaseless gush of goods, advertising of course being all about stimulating or creating desire (false or otherwise), targeting and directly addressing the Id and infantilizing each member of its audience in the process. Dunno -- it's all part of an impression I've carried around for years, but have never gotten around to researching.

But yeah, apparently the Kipper Kids were pretty foremost in the performance art scene of the 1970s. Their work always struck me as the combination of a food fight and some poo-flinging monekyhouse melee, as staged in some Hamburg vaudeville dive under the direction of Jerzy Grotowski. I first heard of 'em in the early-mid 1980s, probably via High Performance magazine. Yes, there actually was a magazine exclusively devoted to performance art once upon a time; and considering the cultural backwater I grew up in, I have no idea why copies turned up on the mag rack of a local second-hand bookstore in my hometown, but there it was. It being the mid '80s, Laurie Anderson had already sort-of brought performance art into the broader culture, her success having hipped a good many people to the idea that such a thing existed, and that it was big in New York and it had a history. And it was in the pages of High Performance that I learned a little about its recent history; not just about the Kippers and McCarty, but also about Marina Abramovic & Ulay, and Rachel Rosenthal, and it's also where I first encountered the names of Spaulding Grey and Eric Bogosian and Karen Findley just slightly before they made national names for themselves. And since the bulk of this stuff was centered in New York, it overlapped with some of what was going on in the music community, which meant that the magazine was probably the first place I read about Christian Marclay and people of that ilk.

And, ironically enough, it was the first time I recall reading anything about the Blue Man Group. Because I remembered them being reviewed in the backpages of the mag sometime around 1985, when they'd just started out and the thing just some off-Broadway production, a much smaller and modest affair than the big complex, franchised affair that it would become some years later. I recall it had a photo from the performance of the blue men all sitting at a table side to side, each of them with his own box of Cap'n Crunch cereal; because apparently at some point in the production they would big through the boxes, stuff the cereal into their mouths, and chomp it all up and then spray it out of their mouths. So I guess by that point the whole business of excess and foodstuffs had long since settled into some performance-art cliché that was game for satirizing.

And then there was Virgin Prunes. Perhaps you've heard of them, because – yeah – they were a musical group. They hailed from Dublin and in some ways they were an odd sibling group to (no less) U2. In their early years there were a number of stories circulating about them. One story had it when they'd played one particular venue, they lined the entranceway of the club with renderings from a local abattoir; which seemed like a cross between Abramovic & Ulay's Imponderabilia and some sort of Aktionist outing. And then there were reports of shock tactics that included simulated oral sex and rolling around in some suspicious-looking substance onstage. Never knew if any of the stories were apocryphal or not; but if true, they certainly got people's attention. Glam's camp and theatricality merged with the visceral end of then-contempo performance art. Soon to be followed by Die Tödliche Doris out of Berlin, who took the art part of the art-rock rubric to such a conceptual extreme that the music often seemed like a superfluous by-product of their activities, a mere residue.

There, was all of the above sufficiently meandering and pointless? Yeah, figured as much.

18 December 2011

'All we do is complain.'

Rem Koolhaas, in an interview with Spiegel Online, speaking about assembly-line cities and working in an unstable ideological environment:

"Under neoliberalism, architecture lost its role as the decisive and fundamental articulation of a society. ...Take, for example, the prefabricated building. No matter how misguided this ultimately turned out to be, it actually was a very clear articulation. But neoliberalism has turned architecture into a 'cherry on the cake' affair. The Elbphilharmonie is a perfect example: It's icing on the cake. I'm not saying that neoliberalism has destroyed architecture. But it has assigned it a new role and limited its range."

Interesting to me is the part on the second page where Koolhaas states: "In an age of mass immigration, a mass similarity of cities might just be inevitable. These cities function like airports in which the same shops are always in the same places. Everything is defined by function, and nothing by history." Which is more-or-less Marc Augé's idea of the non-place, but applied on a larger civic scale. Which makes me think of a comment that turned up in Glenn Gould's radio documentary The Idea of North: "When the time comes that every place is like everyplace else, will anyone want to go anywhere?"

via Down With Utopia

16 December 2011

Lineage (The Way of All Flesh)

in the beginning, something about the word. but before that bit about the beginning
there was a lot of business about how mamoaha begat slipshad, and how slipshad
begat hamrach, and hamrach begat nimrod, & so on & so on. the stuff
that was in the gospels but never gospel proper, what only made it into the worst
of sermons and fell between the crevices of all the killings and the fuckings, the
cursings and redeemings, the departures and wanderings and arrivals. the last of
which seem to be -- once you think about it -- always and foreverly forthcoming
and a little too heavily reliant on a surplus of (ahem) trust.

before all that: the word supposedly spoken, and then (eventually) scratched down.
the word made flesh, or at least given worldly weight -- legs, if you will -- with its
shaping in the meat of the mouth. its meaning only by way of agreement, a signing
on some undrawn line. that agreement being only that which was mutually known.
the thing we each acknowledge, that lay there between us on the table.

but the only things that can really be known or trusted are those that arrive
well in advance of words. words too often arriving very late to the scene, like
the ambulance rolling up hours after the crucial moment, long after we'd sent word
to the sheriff, with someone having agreed to set out on foot carrying, how it had to
be done before the wires and the telephones made it out our way.

a narrative given shape, strung together and given beginning, middle, end.
tales passed from one to the next, the words there for the purpose of telling.
the sort of tale that sometimes -- some times -- reaches the point where language
breaks down, collapses, that goes a place that words can't go, where description falls
short and takes its leave, leaving just the prelingual utterance, sans syntagma.
because hurts of a certain kind have a quality of (if they must be spelt)

* * *

and it's tiring, killingly so. it gives me a goddamn headache sometimes how some
cats think they can map all this stuff out -- with everything connected or correlated,
categorized and labeled, with everything falling properly into place, all named and
laid out tidily, fixed (supposedly) with certainty about their relatedness. but the
only thing one knows for certain is causality, and even that itself is all wound up in
randomness and happenstance, and beyond that everything else is just guesswork.
but the one thing one can be assured of is the hurts, and the varying qualities
and depths thereof.

now: the hand held aloft, its inside offered up for scrutiny, for decipherence. that fate
is something etched on the skin is another given, among the first things you learn. so too
with the ways in which everything is encoded. delineation, a schematic: the interrelation
of all things, each connected to another. this line tells of progeny, kinship. and over
here we have betrayal. here, the most dooming of jealousies. and here desire. here
abandonment. here fortune. and over here need. and here in need. and here ahhhhh,
and over there unnghhn...

with all of these leading to, pointing to nothing bigger than

come sooner,
come late

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image: John Lee Hooker, 1951.
Photograph by Clemens Kalischer.

13 December 2011

'The odd misery through the murk.'

T. J. Clark, writing in the LRB, reviewing the current Tate Modern retrospective of the work of Gerhard Richter:

"The idea of working from the photograph seems in Richter, again from the beginning, to have been bound up with the idea of almost painting things out. A kind of botched concealment comes from the photograph as if it were its inner perfume. The photographic seems much of the time to be another word for the lifeless. ...The photo-language is archaic: that is what the dim monochrome suggests to me most powerfully. It speaks to a false fixation on the past – maybe that of a refugee from East Germany, maybe that of post-Hitler Germany in general. ...Richter’s is a world where even fetishism does not work: the shine on the nose of appearance, which one or two canvases bring on emblematically – ineffectively – can do nothing against philosophy, or art after Auschwitz, painting its grey on grey. That cliché again...

Perhaps I have pulled out the stops of despair and disorientation in the last paragraph, but not by much. Richter’s 1960s is a horrible decade. His past in the DDR seems to cling to him, and always he turns from the imagery of the future on offer in the world he has chosen – the new freedom and equality of the children in the porn shots – with a shudder. The Red Army Faction is near. There are some cityscapes painted in 1968 and 1969, in particular Stadtbild SL (from which Luc Tuymans learned brilliantly), where all the achieved non-life of modernity is painted with a truly chilling lack of affect, as if seen by a sociopath looking through the sights of a gun."

* * *

"Richter is the painter at the furthest remove, I reckon, from Adorno’s sense that the whole and only point of art is always to find – to instantiate – concrete particularity in a world of false vividness. Vividness for Richter, if it comes, will have to have falsity written deep within it. I guess this is the strong side (the genuinely disabused-of-illusion side) of his Duchampianism.

[...] Perhaps Richter is a petit bourgeois nihilist: the question the righteous leftist commentators might have asked themselves, however, is what the nerveless attitude allows him to ‘say’ about neo-Leninism; whether nihilism (whatever its class ascription) is now the only vantage point from which the ghost dance of revolution can be chronicled."

Article here.

10 December 2011

The Dematerialization of the Art Object

By now most everyone is familiar with Walter Benjamin's essay 1936 "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Especially with Benjamin's argument that photographic reproduction brings about a "withering" or diminishing of the art object's "aura" -- its value, authenticity, or "authority" as a singular, hand-crafted artifact in material culture. He explained:

"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original. [...]

The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated. This holds not only for the art work but also, for instance, for a landscape which passes in review before the spectator in a movie. In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object."

André Malraux took this idea as the premise for his Le musée imaginaire (or Museum Without Walls), arguing that this process of reproduction and disconnection ultimately liberates art objects from their historical and physical origins, thereby making them available to circulate broadly throughout the public sphere.

And about specific some specific works of art: Above is Gustav Courbet's The Stone Breakers (aka, The Quarrymen), painted in 1849. In some ways it's an archetypal Courbet painting, in that it typifies certain elements of his work -- primarily its gritty and grubby portrayal of figures performing manual labor, a subject considered -- by the academic dictates concerning genre painting and the like -- controversial at the time on account of being too lowly and crude, and therefore unworthy of depiction. As such its an example of the "Realist" aesthetic that Courbet shared with his critical champion Emile Zola. It's also considered in many ways of the ethos that not only informed Courbet's Realism, but also his politics, as well.* While it's not as famous as his A Burial at Ornans or The Painter's Studio or a couple of his other works, it ranks highly enough to have frequently reproduced over the years, quite frequently as the sole of representative example of Courbet's work in survey-level art history textbooks.**

But the painting itself no longer exists, and hasn't since 1945 when it was destroyed during the ariel bombing of Dresden. At the time the painting was reputedly aboard a transport truck that was carting it and some 154 other works away from Dresden for safer territory, a truck which was quickly targeted and destroyed by an RAF bomber. Which is why it turns up, alongside works by Ruebens, Caravaggio, Cranach, Van Gogh and many others in this Flickr pool someone's assembled of "Lost Art: Masterpieces Destroyed in War," a collection of some 170 images that appears to be a subset of an online collection of images posted by the Clark Art Institute. With each, there is no longer an original from which all reproductions are taken, there are just the facsimiles.

Turning up in the pool are Otto Dix's Street Fight and War Cripples, each depicting various aspects of the political turmoil of post-WWI/Weimar Germany. Which draws our attention to the text that accompanies the pool, which states that the photos "represent the only remaining documentation of important works of art -- art that was destroyed before high quality color photography became the standard for documenting art." Leaving them, it seems, to carry on in their existence in diminished form --in an achromatic virtual half-life.

A number of works, particularly landscapes, by Gustav Klimt turn up due to the destruction of a private collection in Austria during the final days of WWII. among the many works lost was Music II, which I've seen many times before; and for some reason, I'm fairly certain I've seen it (on occasion) reproduced in color. Perhaps my memory's playing tricks on me? Or maybe there are colorized version of the photograph floating around. Or maybe a color lithograph version of the painting exists?***

But it seems that the biggest causality of the lot is Casper David Friedrich. It appears that many of the works included were lost in a pair of fires, the first of which (curiously) occurring when the Glaspalast in Munich burned down in 1931. While the fire was apparently deemed an act of arson, its unconnected to with any military actions; seeing how it wildly predated WII proper, and happened nearly a year in advance of Hilter's appointment as chancellor.

And curiously also, Kurt Schwitters's Dadaist Merzbau construction turns up in the collection. Which calls attention to the fact that it is (I believe) the sole entry in the collection that is not a painting. Surely there are plenty of sculpture that have lost to the ravages of war over the years?

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* Courbet having been quite chummy with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and also having served a stint in the hoosegow for his own activities as a Communard.

** The painting also typifies a visual trope that occurs through a good many Courbet works -- that of a figure, often depicted performing some act of manual labor, facing away from the viewer. I believe it was the art historian Michael Fried who once offered the intriguing theory that this recurring figure serves as a "doubling" or a visual analog of the artist -- of the craftsman himself facing into the picture plane while he works.

*** And I actually have a book on Klimt that includes a color reproduction of Schubert at the Piano, so I'm inclined to say that the pool isn't entirely accurate in that respect.

06 December 2011

Endnote to the Previous

And since I'll take any excuse to post music videos however I can get it...

About seven years ago, I happened to attend both the Best and the Worst Show I've Ever Been To within a couple of weeks of each other. Both shows were at the same venue in Baltimore, and both involved established and highly venerated acts of a certain vintage and pedigree. The Worst happened to be finally getting to see The Fall, who I'd long loved; but about the show perhaps the less said the better, because it proved to be one of the most dismal, pointless, and disappointing things I've ever witnessed. (And judging from some of the audience that night, I was far from being the only person there to think so).

But I rebounded just a few weeks later when I first had a chance to see The Ex. It was the exact opposite experience of The Fall show. The Ex played with abandon that night, with a rare degree of sharply-honed energy, passion, and ferocity. Inasmuch as I could ever say I'd seen a band that nearly "blew the roof off the place," it was that show. And I was able to see them a couple more times in Chicago in the years that followed. First was at the Empty Bottle, where the the place was the fullest I'd ever seen it, with the audience wall-to-wall, cheek-to-jowl.

Roughly some eighteen months later, they came through town again; this time bringing with them Ethiopian saxophonist Getachew Mekuria, with whom they'd just recorded an album. I'd just conducted a correspondence interview with guitarist Andy Moor for a Chicago online publication I contributed to, and he'd been most generous with his answers. The venue was larger this time, and the crowd was a little thinner than before, but it definitely more "mixed." About a quarter-to-third of those attending came from the local Ethiopian population. Most of whom danced throughout, though I don't recall seeing anything quite so ecstatic as what appears in the first clip.

And getting to see, at about the same time, Konono No. 1 perform was also pretty great.

At Home I'm a Tourist

I'll admit, I'm very tempted to jump in on the exoticism/xenomania topic, or at least the "Orientalism" reading of same that's all-too-predictably (if not rotely) be grafted onto it. But I probably shouldn't, because I could off. And by'that I mean on some looongggg-asssss who-cares 200,000-word screed. One that would range from going on about everyone from Claude Debussy (et et et al) to a certain now semi-hip DJ that I corresponded with over a decade who up and asked me at one point if I knew anything a certain type of music his breakcore fellow-traveller DJ told him about that reputedly provided the soundtrack for (he claimed) "Brazilian fight clubs," and about the other DJs who netted a lot of hipster cultural clout a few years later by going poaching in the very same domain dude had been initially asking me about, which in turn brought about the whole "shantytown chic" hipster thing that MIA milked like nobody's biz. And then how the whole West African thing oddly came around a few years later, with everyone from OOIOO to Modest Mouse hopping aboard the Remain In Light Redux train before Vampire Weekend came along with their Graceland 2.0 schtick. Which could lead to a discussion of the burgeoning of the "world music" market back in the 1980s, only a part of which was the "afro-pop" category. And how the whole Awesome Tapes From Africa and Shortwave Music and Sublime Frequencies things were so wonderful at first, because they took such a very welcome "impure" approach to all of this, resulting in the sort of thing that was an old-school ethnomusicologist's worst nightmare.* And how this is nothing new. How the best remark on the topic I recall ever reading was some critic reviewing My Life in the Bush of Ghosts for Rolling Stone magazine back when the album first came out, and saying the thing begged the question of "Does the Global Village Support Two-Way Traffic?" By which he meant: what if non-Western could do a similar plundering in reverse. (Which of course they do, because the culture of the West penetrates the rest of the globe to the deepest degree.) And the fact that Byrne & Eno weren't so much enamored with West African music at the time, but (from the sound of it) had been listening to exactly one West African musician -- King Sunny Adé. And about oh my god, dude I only recently found out that soooo many of those old, early, very rare Adé tunes are now available in boocoo loads on (godloveit) Youtube. And about how there's really really really really nothing new about of any of this, because many books have been written on it already, but with a lot fewer having been written about the reversed flow. And about how -- it's sometimes seemed to me -- there's frequently an element of this afoot with various "folk"-isms; a sort of domestic exoticizing that extends not only across cultural lines, but also those of time and economic class. But hell no, I'm not going to go down down that path; because there's no need, because all that matters is that this topic finally allows me the excuse to post the video above (the first one), which I've been waiting for a flimsy excuse to post for like the past three years. So: Guilty as charged? Yeah, I suppose.**

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* Which could lead to a digression about the parallel resurgence of collections of DIY Harry Smith-style 78rpm excavated Americana, particularly of the "ethnic" variety; with which, when I briefly lived in Baltimore, I had a fair number of wonderful evenings having my mind blown by such stuff thanks to an around-the-way connection with someone who's since gone on to start his own label for releasing collections of same.
** And NO, the above post is not a intended as a swipe at Simon. And not to be construed as such. In fact, I thought he covered the topic quite excellently in the MTV IGGY piece; not only with lining up the glut of corresponding trends of recent years, but also in acknowledging the problematic aspects of each.

02 December 2011

We Like It Raw

A photo blog, presently some 46 pages deep, devoted to everyone's favorite architectural bête noire. And because it's a tumblr, it only follows that it's called Fuck Yeah Brutalism. Leagues better than any of the Flickr brutalism photo pools I've picked through, because this one upholds its own aesthetic integrity by only using vintage photos. Yeah sure, a lot of the usual classics (the Simon Fraser campus, et al) are there; the thing provides an internationally comprehensive survey, complete with drawings and models for unrealized projects. And one would expect as much, seeing how the guy who puts it together teaches architectural design & theory at Kent State University.

01 December 2011

Getting Hammered (Love is Colder Than Death)

Consider this an extrapolative riff on the previous post; about which a friend popped up with something in the comments box that got me to thinking. She pointed out that my selection of header image -- one of the many variants from Robert Longo's Men in the Cities series -- turned up in the latest edition of Adbusters magazine.

Which prompted me to realize something about the cultural status of Longo's series, how it entered into the larger culture back in the early 1980s and has more or less stayed there ever since -- frequently reproduced, recycled, visually quoted, and etc. It's fair to say that its a body of work that's emblematic of its era, if not of a certain aspect of the larger culture that was emerging during the Reagan years. Plenty of people have seen some image from the series used in one context or another over the years, even if they can't identity it or know where it originally came from.

The series of large drawings, which Longo produced in 1979, were based on photographs the artist had staged and taken himself. In the years that immediately followed, these images were commonly viewed as some cheeky social commentary, on yuppiedom specifically -- contorted caricatures of business-district types spinning amidst the whirl of the accelerating and increasingly diffuse rush of contemporary life -- buffeted and dizzied to point of practically being yanked out of their shoes.

Longo's series was something of an instant hit, and for something that came out of the fine-art world, it circulated broadly throughout the culture at large. For instance, I recall seeing reprints from the series turning up in Spin magazine sometime around 1986. It was a backpage piece, maybe one penned by Glenn O'Brien or one of their regular contributors at the time, in some piece titled "Do You Want to be a Rock'n'Roll Star?" Something about those images spaced across the top of the page with that header running under it made immediate sense. The rock'n'roll reference drew out something about the images. Specifically, it underscored how these urban yuppies types appeared -- obliterated on their evening's intoxicant(s) of choice, mindlessly dancing away in some club, and how each figure -- floated by the artist in a blank white field -- looked like a specimen isolated in its own little egocentric universe. Or, looked at another way, some of the figures' flailing about made it look like they were playing air guitar. Something about playing air guitar deeply resonated in those years -- paralleling and coalescing with the alternate economic universe that was coming into being at the time. Yeah, here's to living in your own movie.

Like I said: Emblematic of an era. All too, the more I think about it.

But Longo didn't just pull that series of images out of the air. Like a number of NYC artists of his generation, Longo was a big fan of the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The German filmmaker cranked out an insane number of films over the course of his shortened career, and these films has been very chic among the New York cultural set during the 1970s. Longo was taken with one Fassbinder film in particular, Fassbinder's 1970 neo-noir/gangster film homage The American Soldier. More specifically, Longo seemed to be obsessed with one particular part of the film -- its closing scene, in which the main protagonist, a contract killer named Ricky, and his friend Franz (played by Fassbinder himself) are gunned down in a railway station corridor by the police. As soon as the fatal shots are fired the scene kicks into slo-mo, and the viewer is treated to a brief totentanz as the figures of Ricky and Franz twist and spin about from the impact of the bullets...

When the film finally turned up in Manhattan cinemas in 1976, Longo gravitated to this final sequence, quickly incorporating the figure of a man frozen in the throes of death into a series of performance works entitled Sound Distance of a Good Man. Shortly thereafter, he began reworking the that same motif a number of ways in what would become the Men in the Cities series. Here's Longo himself talking about the series, from a clip about his recent project of reviving Men in the Cities as a series of colorized digital prints...

The original idea having originally come from a cinematic shooting. And it was this stealthy theme that I thought I saw echoed in his later Body Hammers series of large graphite & charcoal drawings -- a set of severe, blown-up renderings of various models of handguns. It was as if Longo was revisiting the core idea for Men in the Cities, but reversing the perspective; this time turning the focus towards the fatal weapon itself, toward the instrument from which the bullets issued.

So there's that matter of the violence and morbidity that lay at the core, with the germinating source, of Longo's Men in the Cities series. I suspect that this was the sort of thing that Gail Day, in her review of the current V&A "Postmodernism" exhibition, was referring to when she stated that postmodernism often "treated the reminder of death as a deliberate leitmotif." A sort of momento mori several degrees removed, remotely masked behind a layering of veils. And there's that other hallmark of postmodernism -- its incestuous intertextuality, the way cultural products perpetually references and comments on other culture products, forming an endlessly intertwining series of riffs, tangents, and juxtapositions.

Like many of his peers of that '80s generation of NYC artists, Robert Longo's fame dwindled considerably in the decades that followed. But in that that period during the early and mid- 1980s, he was among the forefront of NYC's new gen of rising "art stars," he was hailed as something of a po-mo wunderkind. Much of this was because his work often straddled numerous media. Drawing, yes; but also performance, the odd free-standing sculptural work, as well as film and video. And it was his work in this last area that provided him means of sometimes crossing over into the "pop" domain, most often by doing projects with musical artists. For example, one of his works was used as the sleeve art from the Replacements' album Tim. And he also ended up directing a number of music videos; most notably for R.E.M., Megadeath, and New Order. That last item, apparently included in the V&A exhibit, was for the song "Bizarre Love Triangle" -- both of which (the song and the video) have come to be regarded as zeitgeist-defining cultural artifacts over the decades.

30 November 2011

'Under the Weight of Its Own Success'

Gail Day, writing about the exhibition "Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990" at the Victoria & Albert Museum (London) over at MetaMute...

"Sure, I found plenty of pleasures to revel in – vicarious and otherwise. Tapping toes to Talking Heads, snippets from Blade Runner and The Last of England, issues of The Face, a Buzzcock’s single, and reminders of the Hacienda: it was a retro fairground of an earlier life. Lots of stuff I'd thrown away. My own petty possessions and experiences of the '80s were raised to a second power under the museological gaze named 'postmodernism'. At least I had enjoyed using the commodities back then; with their fetish nature transmuted, they looked back at me from their cultic vitrines and display monitors. Interestingly, the temporal economies invoked by the items of popular culture (the mags, the films, the sounds, the looks) didn’t accord with those of the furniture and household objects. If coming across the former felt like rummaging at a jumble sale, the later was more like window shopping in one of today’s emporia, with their Alessi franchises, devoted to designer products. Not all commodities are equal. Of course, for anyone of my generation, the show inevitably had a melancholic underpinning. But, irrespective of when we were born, Postmodernism treated the reminder of death as a deliberate leitmotif. [Charles] Jencks' words, stencilled on the wall, set the scene from the outset: if modernism is dead, 'we might as well enjoy picking over the corpse'. Later, Derek Jarman's voice-over was used to echo the sense of historical caesura and closure: 'Even our protests were hopeless'."

Though I haven't seen it, I was dubious about the exhibition when I saw it announced some months ago, and Day's review gets to the why of those misgivings. It was always a slippery matter, postmodernism -- meaning one thing in literature, another with architecture, and yet another in visual art; with a limited number of overlapping critical concepts to connect them all. A problem that Day addresses quite squarely, especially with:

"'Style and Subversion' was posed as the overarching 'ambiguity' – the all round refusal to be categorised – that was (allegedly) postmodernism. Postmodernism, we were told, was 'a new self-awareness about style itself'. But it transpired that Postmodernism, the show, reduced 'style' to an unreflexive, art-historical category which was used to pin down a period of 20 years: strange to see because, if the debates over postmodernity did one thing, it was to distinguish 'ism' from 'ity'."

But outside the realms of critical discourse and theory, one generally felt at the time that it -- "postmodern" -- amounted to little more than a buzzword. And admittedly trying to curatorially corral much of it into a coherent exhibit would be no easy task. Since you can't exhibit a novel, and seeing how so much of the art of the 1980s carries a tainted stink that continues to repel canonization, why not just shovel in fashion and jewelry and music videos instead? And really, as far as the 1980s are concerned, that seems the most appropriate thing to do. In which case, perhaps the most fitting name for such an exhibition would be: "Postmodernism -- It Was All Just a Bunch of Stuff."

29 November 2011

Beyond the Shock Box

Over at his own 555 Enterprises blog Timh recently had some thoughts about the Chris Burden piece I posted at the 1970s venue and cross-posted here. And he did an astute job of fleshing out some of the subtext, one of the implied underlying themes, of the piece -- connecting it to Stanley Milgram's famed social experiments concerning obedience to authority figures.

Since Timh doesn't have comments enabled on his blog, I e-mailed him directly with some additional thoughts and elaborations, which in turned prompted another response by way of a blog-post. With this second post, Timh incorporates my remarks and continues with his original line of thinking, making some very sharp observations in the process. I especially liked where it arrives in its final stretch, with its "If there is a deity in the art world, it is autonomy" extrapolation.

28 November 2011

As Nature Allows



I.       Place name: from the ancient Persian, home of fires. The Zoratsrian plume,
          the eruptive arcs of conflagrant fountains, the flame having burned for centuries,
          if not millenia, if not from the beginning of time. For an eternity.

          An eternity having ended soon enough, with its source siphoned out. Drawn off
          'to light, to lubricate, and paint all the world.' The blaze dwindling, dissipated,
          the Brahmins abandoning the temple. The temple then renovated, and left to the
          tourists, for whom the flame had to be piped back in, artificially. A domestic import,
          a diverted diversion, viewable each day between the hours of 9 and 6.

II.       While on the horizon the ever thickening, man-made forest burns — brighter and
           monumentally, daily darkening the sky.

III.      The sky darkened. Dark: the color (as such) of that (more or less) which is
           (so to speak) not there. That not spoken of, left unquantified. Reification in reverse.
           The world now fully lit and lubed and painted. Permeated and suffused at every level.
           The subtext  ungirding all narratives, the presence that can only be inferred. Energy:
           an agent of acceleration and expansion. Nothing, essentially, being the biggest part of
           everything — how the totality operates, and also how it ends. The essence unknown and
           unknowable, unseen and unseeable. Its presence only inferred, the light from distant bodies
           bending as it passes through.

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images: From "Oil Wells at Baku, Close View,"commonly
attributed to Auguste and Louis Lumière, c. 1898  { # }

26 November 2011

Three-Minute Zeroes

Over at his scratchpad blog, Simon's recently been doing a series about "shite bands that filled up the pages in Melody Maker" back in the late 1980s; MM being a publication Simon was at in his early days, and the late '80s being -- by his and others' reckoning -- "the era of bad (British) music."

All of which prompts me to recall a series I'd sort-of been thinking of doing for a while. A series that'll most likely be infrequent and probably very short-lived. A series that'll constitute me breaking my own format; but as I've already established, seeing how I'm the sole proprietor of this here thing I can do whatever I want. So, here we go. A series that for lack of any proper title is about Absolutely Inessential/Forgettable Artists Who Had Exactly One Perfect Song. And here's our first candidate...

As I recall, it was 1979 when this tune crept up the charts in the U.S.. Which was an interesting time to be listening to the radio. Y'see, it was wake of the Big Disco Crash -- with the hegemonic reign of disco being officially and finally OVER, and a backlash following in its wake. As a result, the pop charts got a bit eclectic for a while as people were definitely hungry to hear something other than disco and radio programmers were scrambling around cluelessly trying to come up with things to fill the void and scratch that itch. That's about the time that when Cheap Trick belatedly scored their first nationwide big radio hit, and that The Knack's "My Sharona" effectively became the certified Fuck-Disco-I-Wanna-Rock backlash anthem. D.C. Go-go had its first (and practically only) early moment in the sun as Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers' "Bustin' Loose" topped the Soul charts at around the same time. And how else to explain M's "Pop Muzik" rapidly becoming a number 1 hit on this side of the pond? An odd assortment of sounds and style floating around in the mainstream for a brief time, without any predicatbilty or apparent logic.

And then there was this song, which did a good job of Passing For Normal. Of course, it sounded like it'd had a lot of help, in terms of studio production -- lots of embellishments that help reassure the listener that everything was okay. There's the feigned muscularity of the electric guitar riffing, which sounded very much like an gratuitous afterthought or late addition. And the warmth of the organ, being played in a way that blandly reeked of West-Coast '70s Sophistication, which when combined with the strumming of the acoustic guitar might've almost made you think you were hearing a new Gerry Rafferty record. There were other added features, as well -- like the punctuating blips between bracketing the verses; as well as those backing vocals, which at times ("What can I dooooooooo?") threatened to go all histrionic on you.

But there was something about the song, it seemed to me then and it strikes me as I revisit the things decades later, that seemed odd. Something about the song that, despite all the aforementioned baubles, struck me as surprisingly bleak. Part of that impression probably stem from the minimalism that makes up the better part of the song -- the steady, stark rhythmic being hammered out by the drums, the organ and the acoustic guitar that are almost motorik in their persistence and monotony. The vaguely raspy grain of the vocals add to the effect. And then there's the lyrics, which might have struck people as being celebratory, but if so they're only beguilingly so. Or self-delusional, more like, because it seems whatever comforts the narrator offers are little more than empty assurances. As a song, it has clammy-handed, foggy-headed cocaine comedown written all over it -- one in which maybe you can't regret what you don't remember, but still you find you have to climb behind the wheel and hit a winding road late at night, perpetually focused on whatever presents itself in the narrow cameo of the headlight, not driving to get anywhere in particular but just to put some physical distance between yourself and all the things you Simply Can't Cope With Anymore. (And whatever you do, avoid getting pulled over by the police, because you know that'll only end badly, making everything worse, given the state you're in.)

Or that's how it sounds to me now, and I recall intuiting that same impression when I first heard it. But I was only about 12 years old at the time, so a lot this -- especially the part about cocaine -- wouldn't have crossed my mind at that age.

At any rate: The outfit, if memory serves, was fronted by an artist -- a photorealist painter whose artworks graced the covers of their albums, albums which almost nobody bought and which had a brisk walk to the cut-out bins, because as it turned out the band was actually quite boring and unremarkable, thus making them definitive One-hit Wonders. And something about that one hit seems to me now like something that would've turned up on a movie soundtrack at some point, since it seems like it'd be perfect for a scene in a certain kind of film. But checking IMDB, it appears that it's so far only been used once in that respect, making a fleeting appearance in Boogie Nights; which, if true, I totally don't remember.

25 November 2011

Enter the Epiphanator

"The argument is well posed inside the larger one that the mediasphere demands such 'spikes' of dramatic witnessing, or otherwise it will turn away and move on to The Next Kitten In A Tree. This short-attention-span afflicted dynamic is contrasted with the old-media paradigm they call The Epiphanator [...] The still image moves. But does it still have the power to move?"

"The Atomization of the Image," over at the WFMU blog. (Via)

What We Do is Secret

Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010

Chemical and Biological Proving Ground No 2, Dugway, UT, 2006

Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center #2, 2008

PARCAE Spacecraft Over the Yosemite Valley (Naval Ocean
Surveillance System Satellite;  1983-056G), 2010

"We have this idea that secrecy is this perfectly oiled machine but the secrecy system is not all that organized. Also we imagine that there is one single brain orchestrating secrecy behind the whole State but this is not the case. Lots of things are contradicting each other. The secrecy system is internally inconsistent but also incoherent."
. . . . .
"I can only talk from an American perspective. The Black World is a State that is inside the State and it works differently. It's monarchic in the sense that it's not a democracy. It is run by generals and ultimately by the President. There's very little overview of it by other parts of the government and obviously by the people. It has a tendency to change everything around it to its own image."

Excerpts from an interview with Trevor Paglen over at We Make Money Not Art, concerning his recent series of photographs Limit Telephotography and The Other Night Sky, which are currently included in the Architecture of Fear exhibition at the Z33 House for Contemporary Art Center in Hasselt, Belgium. Paglen has also recently published Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes, the first monograph collection of his work.

24 November 2011

That damned bird

The Thanksgiving I'll most remember is the one where my grandfather wound up in the Emergency Room. It happened while he made his initial attempt at carving the turkey, having already had about ten beers over the course of the afternoon. The cutting of the hand, and the trip to the hospital that followed. The meal delayed by four hours. Then him returning and everything resuming where it'd left off, but with someone else wielding of the knife. And my grandfather, with his hand all bandaged and having to be held in the air above heart-level to prevent further gushing; bound up so that the injured digit extended outward from the fold. With him sitting there at the head of the table, his arm raised aloft, looking for the better part of the world like Ernest Hemingway endlessly giving everyone in attendance The Finger.*

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* A bit of holiday "flash fiction," if fiction involves 92% fact.

21 November 2011

The well-calibrated microphone

Thanks to the Root Strata blog for the heads-up.

20 November 2011

Music for Filmstrips, Vol. 1

Back when I used to do radio, not too many years ago, I often wound up wearing a variety of hats as far as the whole hosting & DJing biz was concerned. Aside from spinning the standard allotment of breaks, beats & bleeps, for a while I was co-host of a show devoted to experimental music, with a Chicago-based noisician and myself acting as the DJs on alterating weeks. The show's format usually provided an extra hour (midnight!) for doing some extended, uninterrupted, multilayered live mixing. Multiple components all going at once, including locked-groove records and homemade loops -- shaping it all via the station's mixing board. I quite enjoyed it, frequently came up with good results, and it's something that I miss doing.

So it's been a while since I've done anything like that. But this (below) isn't quite one of those things. It started out the other way way, intent-wise; But instead it took its own direction as I worked on it, and turned into something else. Far less abstract, nothing too complex. Plus with a fair share of vaguely rhythmic and musical elements for those who absolutely insist on such things, and maybe a little bit 'hypnagogic' in parts. (Maybe I'm 'mellowing' as I get older. Shrug.) At any rate, give it a try if you're so inclined.

::: here :::

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◼  steve young / 'michael jordan' / arbor / 2008
◼  sky stadium / 'peace guide' / goldtimers tapes / 2011
◼  motion sickness of time travel / 'the walls were dripping with stars' / digitalis / 2011
◼  lee noble / 'retreat, abandon' / bathetic / 2011
◼  niggas with guitars / 'e.f.o.' / digitalis / 2011
◼  ekoplekz / 'rebus un' / mordant music / 2011
◼  konx-om-pax / 'II' / display copy / 2010
◼  call back the giants / 'the rising|the lizard' / kye / 2011
◼  pulse emitter / 'longing thresholds, pt. 2' / nna tapes / 2010
◼  rambutan / 'immaterial' / deep tapes / 2011
◼  andy stott / 'execution' / modern love / 2011
◼  tidal / 'double death' / 2:00AM tapes / 2010
◼  chapels / 'mantra u.f.o.' / 905 tapes / 2011
◼  nonhorse / 'subtle revenge' / nna tapes / 2010
◼  imaginary softwoods / 'untitled, no. 4' / wagon / 2008
◼  1958-2009 / 'untitled, no. 1' / ekhein / 2009
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17 November 2011

O, but to stab the heavens; if only to bring glory spilling earthward; raining on redeemed and lost alike

During the last few months that I lived in Baltimore, I happened into some work that often involved having to travel down to job sites in the D.C. 'burbs. I had a foreman who was from Boston, and he designated me to drive the van because he claimed I made better time in traffic than anyone else on the crew. And about that traffic -- it meant having to navigate the Beltway during rush hours each day. It was a pain in the ass, because the Beltway's always mad congested, and for whatever reason people in the D.C./Baltimore area drive like morons.

At any rate, our various routes often had us traveling counterclockwise along the northern stretch of the Beltway during the morning leg. There's a point roughly around Silver Spring where you come upon the enormous Mormon temple in Kensington, MD. It's situated a short distance from the expressway, and as you round the bend the thing suddenly comes into view, looming over the trees like some massive doom fortress. Its broad sprawling blockiness and sweeping verticality, its stark white facade and rigid fenestration, and the tall, thin spires severely piercing upwards in the morning sun like massive gleaming icepicks.

A coworker told me that the thing inspired a routine act of vandalism. Strategically placed across a railway overpass that you drive under just as the temple comes into view, someone repeatedly spray-painted the words, "SURRENDER, DOROTHY."

No matter how many times the graffiti got scrubbed away, it would always reappear shortly thereafter, over and over again throughout the years. Here's an Associated Press photo of that juncture of road circa sometime in the 1980s, graffiti intact...

This article on the thing purports to tell the story of the origin of the graffito in question. Supposedly the thing reminded someone of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. I'm more inclined to say it possesses some of the qualities of the witch's castle, perhaps because I kept expecting to see winged monkeys come flying out of the thing. Hulkingly oppressive to the point of being ghastly -- very much a textbook example of authoritarian/fascist architecture. More specifically, at first sight it struck me as distinctly Stalinist in style.*  Wasn't sure why where that impression came from, perhaps because it reminded me of some other building of that type that I'd seen before. 

Yeah, turns out it did. Here we go, got it...

Lomonosov Moscow State University -- the main building, built circa 1949. Tsk.

Incidentally, there's an elaborate Bahá'í temple in the North Shore 'burbs of Chicago that's honkingly spectacular. When we happened across it years ago, the ground view level prompted wifey to comment that it reminded her of a gigantic wedding cake. The building makes an appearance in Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, during the Chicago portion of the travelogue, when Miller's guide leads him to the site late one night when the temple was still under construction.

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* Or, as Eddie Izzard might have it, it's a bluechip epitome of the Big Fuck-Off Stalinist School of Architecture.

15 November 2011

Internal Exiles

The new edition of e-flux journal is up, offering a thumpingly nice theme issue devoted to Moscow Conceptionalism. The issue is primed to coincide with a current exhibition of work by Andrei Monastyrski and Collective Actions that's being held at the e-flux NYC space, which was curated by Boris Groys.

Broadly, the contributors aim to situate Soviet conceptual art of the 1970s and '80s in relation to to its counterparts in the U.S. and Europe. There's also a common argument for a more context-specific historicizing of the work, a reading that diverges from the perennial critical account of framing the work in an over-simplified "dissident" reading.*  As far as specifics are concerned: Groys addresses Soviet conceptualism from an anti-aesthetic angle, contributor Keti Chukhrov offers a materialist parsing of Soviet conceptualism in relation to the anti-libidinal nature of socialist economies, while Claire Wilson delves into the collaborative and participatory nature of many of Collective Action Group's projects. Plenty there for the interested, as well as copious references to other recent literature on the topic for the curious.

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*  This was the common account for the work back in the 1980s, when the work of various artists connected with the "Sots Arts" network, received any press in the U.S. and elsewhere. So yes, the Iron Curtain having long since fallen and perestroika having since become an historically remote rubric to filter all such stuff through, perhaps this sort of re-framing is long overdue.

13 November 2011

From the Rubble of the Chancellery / Leben mit Pop

Reading Andreas Huyssen's Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia, I come across the following in the author's essay on the art of Anselm Kiefer, here writing about the artist's Occupations photo series of 1969:

"There is another dimension, however, to this work, a dimension of self-conscious mise-en-scène that is at its conceptual core. ...But why ten the Sieg Heil gesture? would suggest that it is to be read as a conceptual gesture reminding us that indeed Nazi culture had almost effectively occupied, exploited, and abused the power of the visual, especially the power of massive monumentalism and of a confining, even disciplining, central-point perspective. Fascism had furthermore perverted, abused, and sucked up whole territories of a German image-world, turning national iconic and literary traditions into mere ornaments of power and thereby leaving post-1945 culture with a tabula rasa that was bound to cause a smoldering crisis of identity. After twelve years of an image orgy without precedent in the modern world, which included everything from torch marches to political mass specatcles, from the mammoth staging of the 1936 Olympics to the ceaseless productions of the Nazi film industry deep into the war years, from Albert Speer's floodlight operas in the night sky to the fireworks of antiaircraft flak over burning cities, the country's need for images was exhausted. Apart from importing American films and the cult of foreign royalty in illustrated magazines, postwar Germany was a country without images, a landscape of rubble and ruins that quickly and efficiently turned itself into the gray of concrete reconstruction, lightened up only by the iconography of commercial advertising and the fake imagery of the Heimatfilm. The country that had produced the Weimar cinema and a wealth of avant-grade art in the 1920s and that would produce the new German cinema beginning in the late 1960s was by and large image-dead for about twenty years: hardly any new departures in film, no painting worth talking about, a kind of enforced minimalism, ground zero of a visual amnesia."

The essay in question was originally published in the journal October in 1988. That being the case, Huyssen is talking about the work that the Kiefer did over the first 15 years of his career. By the late 1980s, the artist's work had already shifted to include a broader array of cultural references and iconography. After Kiefer moved off to France in the early 1990s, critics wrote him off for a stretch, the verdict being that a more "romantic" (supposed French) sensibility had seeped into his work, softening it to some degree. Admittedly, the artist's style did evolve. Yes, he still works on the same large, almost monumental, scale. But there's an elegance to the look of the stuff -- mainly in the handling of materials -- that was absent during his first 20 years of work.1  The rough-hewn quality that was so much a part of the character of the early work always seemed to be inextricably bound up with the content -- the thick and deeply textured crust of paint denoting the scarred and haunted landscape of the Heimat, while simultaneously implying a throwing-mud-at-the-wall effort of trying to give voice to the unspeakable (or at least the unspoken).2

* * * * * * * * * * *

Huyssen continues in the next paragraph...

"I am reminded here of of something Werner Herzog once stated...'We live in a society that has no adequate images anymore, and if we we do not find adequate images and an adequate language for our civilization with which to express them, we will die out like the dinosaurs. It's as simple as that.' The absence of adequate images in postwar Germany and the need to invent, to create images to go on living also seems to propel Kiefer's project. He insists that the burden of fascism on images has to be reflected and worked through by any postwar German artist worth his or her salt. From that perspective indeed most postwar German art has to be seen as so much evasion. During the 1950s, it mainly offered derivations from abstract expressionism, tachism, informel, and other internationally sanctioned movements. As opposed to literature and film, media in which the confrontation with the fascist past had become an overriding concern during the 1960s, the art scene in West Germany was dominated by the light experiments of Gruppe Zero, the situationist-related Fluxus movement, and a number of experiments with figuration in the work of Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. The focus of most of these artists, whether or not they wanted their art to be socially critical, was the present: consumer capitalism in the age of America and television. In this context Kiefer's occupations of the fascist image-space and of other nationalist iconography were as much a new departure for German art as they were a political provocation, except, of course, that this provocation was not widely recognized during the 1970s."

Which addresses what I was writing about, albeit by a much more circuitous route, in that bit I wrote about Bowie's "Berlin years" for the '70s-themed outboard venue earlier this year. This matter of historical and cultural limbo that followed the Nullpunkt of 1945, the artistic conundrum of the how to proceed when when a society is anxious about its own past and ambivalent about its present.

This ambivalence is what prompts the reading of the early work of Gerhard Richter as so emblematic of its milieu. Richter generally always had the habit of working in a variety of disparate styles simultaneously. A painterly polyglot, with no style taking any sort of aesthetic pre/eminence over any of the others, since -- by dent of their lack of historical/lineal moorings -- there is no developmental artistic lineage or tradition for them to adhere to. But it's the blurred, semi- photorealist works of the 1960s that are most associated with his "Capitalist Realism" phase, that are exemplary of the early leg of his career. There are the numerous paintings modeled from images taken from various magazines, newspapers, school yearbooks and whatnot, all of which seem to be at once both voguish and utterly mundane.

And then there's a much more problematic painting like Onkel Rudi...

It being an old photograph of a family member dressed up in his S.S. uniform. This one occurs in another series of images Richter produced during those years, derived from anonymous found snapshots taken from family albums. As one critic has pointed out, Onkel Rudi is at once both transgressive and innocuous – transgressive in the way it references a suppressed and sordid past, innocuous because of the fact that almost every German household might have had a snapshot of this sort tucked away somewhere. Yet there it is, appearing amid a large body of work that featured an array of images drawn from modern life – of cars, fashion models sporting evening wear, family portraits, a depiction of a cow from a children's book, etc. All of them blurred and distorted by way of painterly manipulation, all of them blurring together as free-floating signifiers in a cultural landscape. A sort of entropic blankness sets in, as if all these images are -- in the realm of an ahistoric moment in time -- equally meaningless and interchangeable. The selection of images is arbitrary -- with no single image meaning anything more than any of the others, all of them ultimately cancelling each other out. There is, one suspects, a critical disinterest on the part of the painter that borders on nihilism.3

Capitalist Realism, the name that Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Konrad Lueg chose as their collective artistic banner when they first began exhibiting. The fact that they abandoned it shortly thereafter and went their separate creative directions suggest that the sobriquet may've been little more than a nonce marketing move in the first place. Still, it was clearly at the time a German response to the Pop Art sensibility that had already emerged in the U.K. and the U.S. some several years previously. But in Britain and the States, this sensibility had emerged out of a different social context -- with the arrival of "pop" modernity having been a state that these western countries had transitioned into during the postwar period -- a cultural situation that had evolved (as it were) organically. Whereas in Germany there was more the sense that it was – to some degree – being imposed from elsewhere, flooding in to fill a cultural void.4

Still, it could be added that this issue or impasse about there being a lack of "adequate images" of the age, and of artists striving to find or create such images wasn't limited to Germany during those years. Among the generation of American artists that started their studies and careers during the 1950s, there was a similar dilemma: What to paint? Abstract Expressionism seemed exhausted and epitomized a type of romanticism that no longer fit the times. It's critical successor, post-painterly abstraction, seemed too digressively formalistic and too decorative. It was, by many accounts, a common question. The question would be answered in a variety of ways -- from Pop, to John and Rauschenberg and the American associates of what would become Fluxus raiding the contemporary common culture for materials and imagery, to someone like Philip Pearlstein playing about with pop subjects before settling into a clinically sterile mode of figure painting. This "crisis of representation" arose from an entirely different context, one that was comparatively unburdened by traditions or the weigh of history. In each instance, however, this aesthetic nullpunkt would prove a pivotal juncture -- strongly dividing the first half of the century from the second.

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1.  No need to construe that this is a necessarily negative thing. Far from it.

2.  Add to this the fragments from the poems of Paul Celan scrawled across some of the paintings, which -- as Huyssen also points out -- in itself echoes Adorno's remark that epic poetry was impossible in the wake of the Holocaust.

3.  Much of this emerging modern consumer culture was leveraged and subsidized by the Marshall Plan, by the U.S. economic assistance that was directed to assist Germany (et al) in the project of rebuilding in the postwar era -- therefore, regarded by some Germans of being of external origins. Some accounts suggest that some Germans of the era were wary of this sudden slam-dunk into this new way of life, resulting in vague sense of malaise and occasional anti-American sentiment. Hence the remark that later appeared in Wim Wender's Im Lauf der Zeit, "The Americans have colonized our subconscious."

4.  The work of Sigmar Polke, however, often proves much more difficult to parse. One detects, especially in his work of the 1970s and '80s, a sense of deliberate irony fueling the work -- the artist's selection of images and the choice of appropriated materials, as well as from the sometimes willful ugliness of the work.

03 November 2011


A few strangling thoughts about the previous...

[ 1. ] I'm not altogether certain about how to sum up my thoughts about the work of Chris Burden. It's a varied body of work he's done over the years -- in terms of themes, but especially in terms of quality. Despite the stronger work (a fair amount of which falls within the first decade of his career), there's also been a high ratio of misfires or under-realized pieces, as well as a good number of works that were just plain weak. In fact, there's e enough of the latter to make me sometimes wonder if the early great pieces were -- in each instance -- just some sort of fluke.

As far as those strong early works are concerned: If anything, I mostly focused on works that I always felt had a strong social dimension -- "topical," as some have labeled them. Despite some critics having argued to the contrary, I think it's quite clear that Burden was feeding off of the world around him, being prompted by the cultural climate of the time.

[ 2. ] And it's that matter of topicality that gave the work some traction back then. In some ways, some of his more famously daring or severe pieces (Shoot, of course, and Trans-fixed) still have the same sensationalist reputation these days as they did back then. He was -- at times, and ironically -- perfect tabloid fodder. With people freaking out and getting anxious about the direction the country was heading at the time, they tended to look to the news for things that validated that perception -- "confirmational bias" being some a common impulse. Since, y'know, as the media has known for a long, long time: You'll never go broke pandering to people's prejudices, phobias, etc.. Far from it.

[ 3. ] Another reason for the canonical status is that a number of Burden's works have a remarkable degree of metaphorical resonance. One piece I didn't address in the post was Velvet Water, which Burden did in 1974. The work consisted of him repeatedly dunking his head in a sink filled with water, doing so again and again until he finally collapsed on the floor sputtering and gasping for breath. The entire time, there was a camera fixed on him, relaying a live video feed of the action to an attended audience which sat in adjoining space. At the start of the piece, Burden addressed the cameras, telling the audience: "Today I am going to breathe water, which is the opposite of drowning, because when you breathe water, you believe water to be a richer, thicker oxygen capable of sustaining life."

The audience, meanwhile, was aware that Burden was carrying out this action on the other side of a partition; because they were reputedly still within earshot of the artist's splashing and choking. It's another one of those works where the audience is put in a complicated situation -- in which their passivity and spectatorship becomes (in theory) problematic by way of their culpability in watching someone endanger himself. The whole bit about being party or witness to someone else's delusional undertakings -- it's a scenario that's bound to translate any number of ways. Like say if you ever knew anyone who joined a cult or got involved in some get-rich-quick scheme. Personally, the whole delusional/"transformational thinking" angle reminds me very much of something we all witnessed just this past decade.

[ 4. ] The Delillo bit's a little odd, innit. I suppose I'll always associate Delillo's Mao II with airline hijacks if only because of Johan Grimonprez's DIAL H-I-S-T-O-R-Y; which, when I saw it nearly 15 years ago, reminded me of a replay of my early childhood -- an endless montage of footage from various airports playing out the evening news night after night.

But what gets me is the sentiment expressed about the craft of writing, of being a novelist. Such a quaintly Romantic notion (it seems) to find still circulating in this day and age, with the cultural landscape having been transformed so completely my a variety of electronic media. But you still see that from time to time, the whole business about some writers regarding themselves or what they do as something akin to the "shaping of reality." Odder still, since -- chronologically speaking -- full-fledged po-mo irony emerged in the literary realm some years before it became common in the visual arts. But I think visual artists disabused themselves of thinking in any similar terms -- about seeking after or expressing any sort of cap-t Truth -- somewhere about the time that Clement Greenberg slagged off Jackson Pollock because of the latter's post-"drip" return to figuration.

[ 5. ] Ralph and Wayne each posted some interesting comments on Part 1 of the piece. Still, I've never been terribly convinced by the reading that attributed something akin to a "will to power" to the works. Assessments of that sort always struck me as a bit too much of a surface reading, a little too reductive (and in a way, little more than a cousin far-removed from more sensationalistic/tabloid-ish accounts). While the work frequently does often have to with power and social dynamics and such, I believe its far trickier and more slippery than that -- not so easily or squarely nailed down. Which is probably why I find it intriguing.

Please Stand By (An Inventory of Effects)

Note: I wrote the below for the outboard 1970s-themed venue. It took a while to write,   wrestling with the thing over the span of many weeks -- a good bit of which involved  pruning and closing off various tangents and trying to get the thing down to a semi-reasonable length. Given all that, and the fact that working on the thing meant a lack of posting here, I decided to do what I otherwise wouldn't, and reprint the piece here.

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Here we have the American artist Chris Burden, looking like a professional and presenting himself to the world. The above photos come from his 1971 performance art piece I Became a Secret Hippy. It was one of Burden's earliest works, executed about the time he was completing his graduate studies at the University of California, Irvine. For the piece, Burden stripped naked and laid down on the floor while a friend hammered a star-shaped stud into his chest. He then sat in a chair while another friend shaved his head with electric shears. Burden then donned the suit of an FBI agent and presented himself to the event's few attendees.

The real-world incidents that inspired I Became a Secret Hippy are so obvious that they don't warrant an explanation. In that respect, it was far from being a subtle work. But considering that it was done at the time that Burden was leaving the cloistered confines of academia and making his transition into the world of professional artmaking, no doubt its ritualistic, rite-of-passage mimicry held some ironic personal meaning for the artist.

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By many accounts, the early Seventies were considered turbulent years -- a time of political, social, and economic upheaval. Most Americans had entered the 1960s with an optimistic vision of the future that awaited them. But a decade later, it all looked uncertain and many people were getting anxious and doubtful, not daring to guess what might happen next. A common, knee-jerk opinion on the street had it that the world was going to hell. "Shootin' rockets to the moon / Kids growing up too soon… Ball of confusion!"

Soldiers returning home after numerous tours of Vietnam reputedly experienced something akin to culture shock, finding things at home much different from when they'd departed. The rapid pace of technological change, and the societal shifts that resulted, had some in the pop-sociology realm talking of "future shock."

So when people read that somewhere a young man had someone shoot him with a rifle and then called the whole thing art, a number of people were shocked, but probably not all that surprised. This is what passes for art these days. The way things were heading, why not?

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The incident in question -- the one that would become Burden's notorious "greatest hit" -- was Shoot, which followed I Became a Secret Hippy by a mere three weeks. On the evening of November 19, 1971, Burden and a few associates and a small number of attendees met in a low-rent art space in Santa Ana. It was, by most accounts, a pretty modest and casual affair, up to the point when -- at an "Okay, let's do this" moment in the evening -- Burden positioned himself against one of the gallery walls. A friend then raised a .22-calibre rifle, took aim at Burden, and fired a single shot.

The plan was a have a handful of spectators witness a William Tell-styled act of trust, with the designated shooter aiming at the wall just to the left of Burden's shoulder. At the most, Burden later claimed, the rifle slug was only supposed to graze him. But due to poor marksmanship the bullet instead hit Burden in the bicep of his left arm. Not having anticipating such an outcome, no one had thought to bring a first-aid kit, so a bandage had to be improvised.

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Before we go any further, a brief overview might be in order...

Selected Works, 1971 - 1976

Chris crams himself into a small metal locker for five days.
Chris gets shot.
Chris lies in a bed for 22 days.
Chris lies down under a tarp in traffic along a busy boulevard.
Chris nearly immolates himself.
Chris dangles naked tied by a rope around his ankles.
Chris crawls over broken glass.
Chris pushes live electrical wires into his bare chest.
Chris has people use him as a human pin cushion.
Chris runs the risk of immolating himself again.
Chris gets crucified to a Volkswagen.
Chris nearly drowns himself.
Chris gets kicked down two flights of stairs.
Chris nearly sets himself on fire. (Yes, again.)
Chris lies on a shelf, just out of sight, for 22 days.
Chris lies, unmoving, under a sheet of glass for 45 hours straight.
Chris bicycles through Death Valley.

Chris does a bunch of other things during these years, but it's the more violent and alarming and supposedly masochistic things he does that everyone talks about. Thereby making him a bit infamous in the process, saddling him a reputation as the "Evel Knievel of the art world" that he grew to resent.

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Chris Burden didn't consider himself a "performance artist," nor did he ever aspire to be one. He'd originally set out to be a sculptor. In the latter years of his studies, he became preoccupied with the task of creating interactive sculptures -- works that invited the audience to become a part of the piece, that were meant to be engaged and manipulated by the viewer. But he quickly became frustrated and deemed many of his works to be unsuccessful, because each time the audience balked at the invitation, choosing instead to maintain the role of distant and passive spectators.

To remedy this impasse, Burden decided to physically make himself a part of the "sculpture," if not the primary component of the work itself. He did this for his senior thesis project, which involved cramming himself into a 2' x 2' x 3' steel locker for the duration of five days. As word of the Burden's project circulated around campus, the curiosity factor brought a steady flow of visitors. People sat outside the locker, inquiring into his well-being and asking him why he was doing what he was doing. A few people sat for extended periods and -- perhaps confused by the dynamic -- treated him like a Father Confessor and divulged all sorts of personal details about themselves. During the final day of the piece, university administration were debating whether to have the locker cut open, fearing for their own liability in connection with Burden's project.

So, problem solved. But noted for future reference: How to calculate for the vagaries of interpersonal psychology? 1

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Performance art was, of course, something of a big deal in the artworld of the 1970s, and Chris Burden was regarded as one of its leading and most controversial pioneers. But performance art wasn't such an entirely new thing. It'd first been kicked around by the Futurists and the Dadaists in the early part of the century, then gone dormant for many years before being reanimated in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily by way of the "happenings" staged by John Cage and his disciples in the Fluxus movement.

If there was any recent historical precedence for the type of work Chris Burden was executing in the early '70s, it was probably Yoko Ono's 1962 Cut Piece, which involved the artist sitting silently on a stage and inviting the audience to cut of here clothing piece by piece with a pair of communal scissors. On the three occasions that Ono staged Cut Piece during the mid-1960s, the audience obliged her each time, in the end leaving the artist sitting on stage wearing little more than scraps and tatters.

Cut Piece is an often-cited work in its own right. Critics often speak of how the piece addresses gender dynamics and how these dynamics play out in terms of social power and status. But in a broader context, one could argue that it ultimately points to an interrogation of the codes of conduct in a supposedly polite society, one which eventually (or hopefully) leads to a critique of the nature of socialization itself. 2

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On the morning of January 5, 1973, Chris Burden walked out onto a beach near the runways of LAX and fired several shots from a revolver at a 747 as it flew overheard. Burden later explained that the piece was about "impotence," since he knew in advance that the bullets would fall short of their target. Impotence in this case meaning bold but futile gestures, the inadequacy of human agency in the face of the grander scheme of things.

Still, unsurprising to learn that the FBI showed up on his doorstep with some questions about the incident a few days afterwards.

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