28 February 2011

Scrabbling at the Airlock

Over at the Faces on Posters (the blog on the 1980s that I'll eventually be posting to at some point), Carl Neville does an astute bit of culture-crunching while hashing through major film archetypes from the Age of Reagan. What caught my interest were his very incisive comments about Ridley Scott's Alien, esepec in terms of comparing it to its 1986 sequel:

"The most striking distinction, the ways in which they seem very much films of their respective decades is in the shift from Alien’s dramatic naturalism to Aliens’ heavy handed, All-American myth-making. Alien also boasts an extravagantly great cast (Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto together at last!) and what seems to be a lot of loosely improvised dialogue and character work on the part of the actors. There are all kinds of tensions among the crew, tensions of class and gender, tensions of hierarchy and role, lots of overlapping dialogue, the camera and lighting unfussy. Compared to what comes next Alien almost feels like Altman-in-space, a low-key set of reflections on the dynamics of having an alien on board."

Initially characterizing the sequel as "a film that now feels horribly dated in a way the first one doesn’t," Carl elaborates:

"In Alien, Ripley’s survival is arbitrary, she’s not an especially heroic or tough character, none of them are. In Aliens she has become an action hero(ine). This shift, from a complex, 'downbeat' Seventies realism through to a hyped up and remorseless, but also ultimately dumbed down and reductive spectacularism can be directly traced through a couple of film series that span the two decades/ develop through the Eighties. Aliens, the increasingly ludicrous pretension of the Rocky movies, the shift from the relatively credible First Blood to the Rambo films, from Saturday Night Fever to Staying Alive for example."

"The Seventies," as he points out, "[was] a kind of killing-ground for the mythical figures of American film, and also a period in which the great post-war stars themselves died or stepped out of the limelight to wither with as much dignity as possible." But in the decade that followed, "The new era demands new heroes, not the doomed, all-too-human anti-heroes of the Seventies but larger than life figures who can re-mythologize the country, not just men of especial fortitude, tenacity or courage but something more akin to the superhero."

Fortuitously enough, this dovetails with a recent piece over at The Rumpus, in which Nick Rombes puts down some of his own thoughts about Alien as the latest installation in the "10/40/70' series. Noting that the film is (yes) "a profoundly ambient experience" thanks to its art direction and cinematography, Rombes also underscores the film's psychological depth -- the realism of the frank, unmannered interactions between characters, etc.. "If Star Wars was the first film of the 1980s," he states:

"...then Alien was the last film of the 1970s. Not literally. But spiritually and aesthetically. Star Wars, with its polished nostalgia, its uncluttered futurism, its clean-shaved hero, as opposed to the loose, slovenly, unshaved camaraderie of Alien, with its undercurrent critique of corporate greed."

Jump to the lengthy footnote that accompanies that remark, in which  Rombes elaborates further, pointing out that the film appeared in the midst of a socio-economic meltdown, just two weeks before President Jimmy Carter's famous "crisis of confidence" speech. Widening the frame, he offers:

"If in Star Wars, evil is 'out there'—its fulfillment in political life taking form in Ronald Reagan’s evil empire speech in 1983—then in Alien evil isn’t 'out there,' but rather back home: earth. For the evil in Alien is not the alien itself, which is too inscrutable to be evil, but rather the corporation that owns the Nostromo and that has deliberately put the crew in contact with the creature. [...] Could viewers in 1979 somehow sense the coming of the New Order that was hinted at in Star Wars, with its mythological nationalism? As for the Alien franchise, especially with Aliens ..., it became increasingly militaristic and loud, as if to offset the anti-corporate undertone."

A few thoughts of my own. Firstly, yes -- there was the overall style of Alien when it first appeared. The acting and characterizations, the stylized atmosphere and the under-idealized physicality of its overall look; all of which was noted and praised at the time of the film’s release.1

But returning to Carl's "killing-ground" comment. True. Hollywood found itself in a a deep slump at the end of the 1960s, with all its blue-chip genres, formulae and archetypes failing to bring in younger audiences. In the early seventies, a number of newer genres would come along as studios cast about looking for something that'd fill theater seats. And some of the older genres of yore -- the western, especially -- would become scarce during the 1970s, and would usually undergo a heavy thematic retooling in the on those occasions when they dragged off the scrapheap.

As far as science fiction went, much of what appeared throughout the decade was of the dystopic variety. Alien, however, is notable in that it is very much a throwback to the monster-movie model that had been such a staple of the industry during the post-War years (e.g. The Thing, It! The Terror from Beyond Space). But one could argue that we were seeing the emergence of what would become a new cliché that would thread many such films in the decades that followed. That being: With the first-gen of such films, back during the early years of the Cold War, it was usually the military or government that came in (cavalry-style) to save the citizens in the final reel. But with the revival of the genre in the 1980s and thereafter, the common premise would have it that the menace had instead been brought about by the actions of blinkered bureaucrats and power-mongers in the military-industrial complex.

As Carl mentions, Aliens would introduce audiences to another round of clichés. Firstly, there were the Cameronian excesses that we could expect in the years to come. And yes, in almost every respect, it was very flat in comparison with its predecessor. At the time of its release, many commented on of its admirable "strong female lead." Quite a bold and unconventional move, was the opinion. No one, it seemed, found it worth analyzing how the film's one claim to thematic depth -- the whole "dueling maternal instincts" trope of Ripley for Newt versus the alien queen for her own breeding ground -- insidiously undercut that theme by playing the gender/biological essentialism card. As far as the "anti-corporate undertones," well, yes -- they were still there, if not foregrounded in a somewhat heavy-handed manner.2

Of course, one could go all sort of theoretic yarns, allegoricizing the alien creature to the wtfosphere and back. But for me, what comes to mind is the quote that Nombes cites in his piece -- the one from the dying android Ash. "I admire its purity. ... [It's] a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." I suppose one could say the same about Rupert Murdock.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1. I recall seeing in some magazine many, many years ago the original design sketches for Alien -- particularly those for the Nostromo interiors and sets. In their early form, they were in the traditional sci-fi mode of sleek, spacious futurity. Curious that Scott rejected this out of hand; opting instead for a dark, cramped, and often dingy environ. And extrapolating from Rombes remarks about the film being released in the middle of U.S./OPEC gas crisis of the late 1970s, it might also be worth noting that Scott's decision was based on the fact the fast that the spaceship was little more than an interplanetary oil refinery. Not to claim that was any sort of deliberate echo of (y'know) "current events" or whatever; but at the very least, the material correspondences of that aspect of the film's visual atmosphere make for an interesting coincidence.

2. Case in point: Everyone's expendable, even the military grunts. And speaking as someone who saw it in the theater when it was first released, I can attest that the part when the company weasel character meets his fate met with the loudest cheers from the audience).

26 February 2011

Rewindings: In Which Agamemnon Senses Something's Wrong and Renovates the Residence

Going back a ways. Effectively what we have here is a reconstruction, abridged and edited, of an old playlist from about 11 years ago. From back when I first started doing a radio show at a community station on the south side of Chicago. Some favored tracks of the time, veering towards a certain sound -- a certain fin de siècle undertow, perhaps. "Dark," "abstrakt," "leftfield," and reputedly even a little "paranoid." Broken beats and dusted dubspace, with the occasional disc deliberately spun at the "incorrect" RPM. (All of it a bit different from the more upbeat, groove-friendly shape the format would take later.) Perhaps it seems a bit incongruous for the latter half of the high-flying nineties, for the tail end of the Clinton years. But about a year or two later, I guess it might've made more sense in hindsight. Probably best listened to in that late-night/early-morning hours.

::: Descargar :::


00:00       intro
01:50       Dagar Brothers - Chant Bageshri: Alap
03:00       Scientific American - Boost the Mid-Range
08:23       DJ Spooky w/ Amiri Baraka - Black Dada Nihilismus
13:14       DJ Krush - Inorganizm
17:11       Organized Konfusion - Sin
20:14       Company Flow - World of Garbage
24:00       segue
24:25       Social Interiors - Who Awoke the Assassins?
26:33       Mike Ladd - I'm Building a Bodacious Bodega for the Race War
31:14       Spectre - Purple Dawn
35:29       Faultline - Partyline Honey (DJ Vadim remix)
41:24       Cabaret Voltaire - Theme from 'Shaft'
43:35       Danny Breaks - The Bear
48:22       DJ Wally - Live @ Soundlab Cultural Alchemy, NYC
52:00       Amon Tobin - Creatures (Hidden Agenda Defocused remix)
54:56       Saul Williams & DJ Krust - Coded Language

23 February 2011


Once again supplying the riff of the week, Evan Calder Williams takes a belated look back at 2010. More specifically, circumnavigating/-scribing the year's three most prominent ruptures:

Every hole in the earth must be anthropomorphized, insofar as that means doing something that humans do at the moment when they seem least human: spitting, swallowing, gurgling, roaring, weeping. Made as if human to be made barely human, to try and register the shock, the frenzy of verbs outdo each other through the frothy news. ...Because a hole itself is neutral, dumb: just a certain area in which the surface is suddenly not at the same level as it was before. There's nothing to think about it, nothing to say, but then things pass through it, one way or another, drop or spew, and other things get wrecked because of it, and what can we say about it? Only that it's just like us, insofar as that means it can do things that stand for the end of us all.

Apertures and aporia. The metaphoric scope of the which seems especially resonant at the moment, flexible and ripe for expansion and extension, as we witness another set of geological and political shifts in the offing.

Really looking forward to the guy's book.

20 February 2011

Archeologies of the Present

An interesting piece from the archives of Afterall about the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Located on the perimeter of Los Angeles with satellite outposts scattered across the Western U.S., The CLUI is an organization that is, according to its website, "dedicated to the increase and diffusion of information about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived." As the Afterall article explains:

Over the years the Center has established outposts for the purposes of research and exhibition in Wendover, Utah and Troy, New York, with a Desert Research Station (DRS) located in California's Mojave Desert. Most ambitiously, the Center has established the Land Use Database, which occupies the aforementioned file cabinets but finds its truest incarnation on the Center's labyrinthine website. The Land Use Database is an ever-growing index of sites organised by region (limited to the United States) and according to nine land-use categories: transportation; water; culture; industry; mining; waste; military; nuclear/radioactive; and the somewhat ambiguous 'research and development'.

Past exhibits at the organization's Los Angeles space have included such topics as "The Trans-Alaska Pipeline: A CLUI Photoscape Presentation," "Immersed Remains: Towns Submerged in America," "Urban Crude: The Oil Fields of the Los Angeles Basin," and "The Best Dead Mall in America: A Photographic Documentation and Indefinite Installation."

The Center also has a nationwide network of affiliates and "independent interpreters and researchers" who offer tours of various locations throughout the country. Its Land Use Database is in the form of an interactive map; a state-by-state guide to sites of interest -- from Bombay Beach of California's Salton Sea, to the Bonneville Salt Flats Raceway, to the Georgia Guidestones. Broken down by category (e.g. industrial, abandoned site, military, etc.), many of the listings in the Western half of the country include the vast expanses that Mike Davis wrote about extensively in Dead Cities, the parts of the American landspace that have been cordoned off, scarred, and in many cases poisoned by nation's petroleum industry or by military testing during the Cold War arms race. Or, as the blurb for the Center's thematic "Isolates Program" has it:

Some places are intentionally cut-off from the continuum of the landscape, becoming discrete, inward looking worlds in themselves. Radioactive sites, for example, have to be disconnected from their surroundings for obvious reasons, and must remain that way for millennia. Military training areas too can function as self-contained cities or stylized enemy nations. This thematic program area examines the sites, landforms, and architectures of such isolate zones.

For instance, there's a listing for the Utah desert film location for the 1956 movie The Conquerer. Dramatizing the life of Ghengis Khan and shot downwind from a Nevada nuclear test site, much of the film's cast and crew would develop and die from cancer in the decades that followed -- including the film's leading star, the Cold War Hollywood icon John Wayne.

The Center's associates in various locations conduct research and offer tours of sites of interest in their own native regions; such as bus tours of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, complete with visits to the abandoned military proving grounds, oil fields, and Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty. As the Afterall piece has it, the Center's work is in some ways conceptually indebted to the some of Smithson's ideas:

In exploring overlooked peripheries such as the 'alien' landscape of Utah or Area 51 in Nevada - often at the guarded border of the military-industrial complex that calls such remote elsewheres home - the Center is dedicated to exploring the circumference. Despite pluralistic claims of 'objectivity', the organisation is hardly ambivalent in the sites it chooses for studies and public tours. The Center's tours provide a frame, however ephemeral, for the experience of these sites, putting humans in contact with the inhuman scale of ambition and the folly of progress.

Back in 2000, the Center inaugurated its new exhibition space with "Formations of Erasure: Earthworks and Entropy," a show that chronicled the then-current status of famous land art pieces across the United States...

Robert Smithson's Partially Buried Woodshed
at Kent State University, c. 1970 and 2000.

As with any database, there's room for growth. For instance, I'm surprised to see no one's added a tour or entry for Stiltsville in the Biscayne Bay in Miami.

In the way that urb-exers climbing down through drains or tunnels to probe the underlying (and often obsolete) physical substrata of cities, the Center's exploration and cataloguing of structural periphera engages a complex unter-narrative of expansiontist, modern America. At the same time, it also parallels the sort of ideas that ecologically-minded photographers like Richard Misrach and Edward Burtynsky, in the way that it bears witness to the processes and side-effects of industrial and military development, the way in which technology of human needs and fears transform the landscape. At the same time, I'm reminded of this item via BLDG BLOG, in which the organization Atlas Obscura hosted a tour of the "Geoglyphs of Nowhere." Which translates, it seems, into a psychogeographic exploration of the stillborn subdivisions in the desert outside of Los Angeles; where the plotted roadways were laid many years ago, while the houses were never built.

17 February 2011

All Tomorrow's Art Parties

Mid-Romantics: David Burliuk and Vladimir Mayakovsky sitting around with
painted faces, impatiently awaiting the release of Aladdin Sane. Moscow, 1914.

Some things are best left for dead. In that respect, the Eighties revival seems to show no signs of slowing down, or any discerning faculty about what might or might not be worth salvaging or recycling.1

On this side of Atlantic, it was a bit hard to understand what the New Romantic thing was about. We knew that it was yet another thing from the U.K., was somehow connected to "new wave" and post-punk, and that it somehow (and somewhat unforgivably) resulted in Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. Clearly it involved a sense of flambouyant stylishness -- flash clothes, big sculpted coifs, a lot of cosmetics and ambisexual vamping, eclecticism. And obviously it was deeply indebted -- in terms of music, style, and its theatrics -- to Bowie and Roxy Music.

So it's curious to see a recent piece over at 3:AM about the New Romantics, "The Cult with No Book." As the title of the article suggests, the author's argument is that -- unlike prior youth subcultural coteries -- New Romanticism had no literary counterpart -- was so insular and ephemeral that it signified no grand cultural shift that could be discerned or documented, folded into any larger narrative. Yet, author Nicky Charlish asserts, "it was a roll-call of cultural achievers and trend-setters for the next 20 years."

Firstly, while the "movement" (if we can even call it that) lacked any outboard literary equiv, it was hardly lacking in cultural precedents -- precedents which it was very conscious of, certain scattered historical tropes or subcultural traditions that it engaged and resuscitated. It was the last wringing-out of a number of cultural tropes. For instance, there was its invocation of the waning zeitgeist hedonism and decadence of Weimar, Germany (y'know...the last party before the lights in Europe went out). Or its neo-voguish escapism and dandyish aestheticism à la Huysmans's Against Nature. There was all the other art school baggage, as well -- that of the avant-garde soirées of the Italian and Russian Futurists early in the century. All of it funneled through a variant of Richard Hell's "blank generation" ethos of degree-zero identity construction.

As far as latter-day Glam mutations of the era are concerned, goth in its early/proto- stages operated in much the same way. Unlike goth, however, New Romanticism ditched Glam's aesthetics of camp, substituting in its place a cold and value-free form of irony. Much of that irony was bound up in imagery and affected sentiment, much of intertwined with a vision of continental Europe that was at once highly modern and at the same time also looking backward -- casting a glance back not only to Weimar, but also to some sort of fin-de-siècle anxiety. More problematically, this idealized vision Europa often involved its share of mythical Teutonic/Hapsburgian imagery; the sort that Leni Riefenstahl or Albert Speer might've thought fetching.

At any rate, back to the Charlish's remark about New Romanticism's influence on the cultural landscape of the 1980s. Sure, in terms of image and fashion, it did have a huge impact in the U.K. in the years that followed; although musically it suffered a shorter shelf life. In a broader context, however, this account gets a bit slippery. Perhaps a more comprehensive history came by way Michael Bracewell, via his 1997 book England Is Mine. Situating New Romanticism (and the New Pop that immediately followed it) on the nether teleological end of a history of dandyism in modern Anglo culture, Bracewell concluded:

"The twentieth-century variation on the decadent theme, however, had not only taken the end of history as a melodramatic backdrop but also, despite itself, prophesied the irony boom and pop as Pure Product sensibility that was just around the corner. ...New Romanticism was both a wake for punk rock and a dress rehearsal for the rampant materialism of the 'Designer Decade.' ... Spun off the backs of Roxy Music and David Bowie, the post-punk fade into New Romanticism would remagnetize London to produce a period, eventually, of effervescent creative hot-housing, giving rise to a new wave of independent design, publishing, and video art. The dawn of the 1980s took media technology to its broken heart, virtually rebirthing it after the death fixation of Weimar neuroses of the late 1970s, and turning all artifice into artefacts. ...This was punk réchauffé, but it also precipitated a nose-dive into the despotism of cultural commodification and style mongering that would mark the Zeitgeist for the rest of the 1980s."2

But ultimately the big problem with the whole kaboodle lies with the music. Manneristic to the core, it was anemic then and much of it sounds utterly hollow now. This is because art or music that's that chronically self-conscious rarely amounts to anything substantial or satisfying.3 Still, there are a few things that fall on the margins of the trend that prove exceptions...

Given how atrocious Ultravox would become after John Foxx left the band, Ha! Ha! Ha! makes them something of a one-album wonder in retrospect. And while Magazine may have shared three members with the early line-up of Visage, one can't even begin the measure of the distance between the two outfits; for which I guess you can only credit Howard DeVoto.

And as far as the convergence of fashion, futurity, music, art, androgyny, and image, Grace Jones's people took that ball and ran with it at about the same time; executing some wall-to-wall art direction that turned the performer and her show into something of a gesamtkunstwerk package...

...And it's even replete with a bit of quasi-fascista imagery and some Cabaret Voltaire-ish accessorizing.

Of course, it was backed by a major label, an entourage of fashion-world veterans, and piles of cash. Still, it succeeded in baffling a lot of people at the time. As I recall, J.G. Ballard was a bit smitten by it.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1. Lately, I've been getting back-to-back reminders of this every time I turn on my local college radio station.

2. Adding a few paragraphs later, "The gathering momentum of Thatcherism's social and economic agenda had encouraged irony as the principal means of protest and commentary; the celebration of consumerism could could also be taken as its own critique."

3. Unless someone wants to mount some kinda case in its favor, arguing along the lines of it being an exercise in, say, popist accelerationism. In which case, be my guest

15 February 2011

Long Tall Sally

"This was the reason for his trip to New York. ...Three thousand acres of mountained garbage, contoured and road-graded, with bulldozers pushing waves of refuse onto the active face. Brian felt invigorated, looking at the scene. Barges unloading, sweeper boats poking through the kills to pick up stray waste. ...It was science fiction and prehistory, garbage arriving twenty-four hours a day, hundreds of workers, vehicles with metal rollers compacting the trash, bucket augers digging vents for methane gas, the gulls diving and crying, a line of snouted trucks sucking in loose litter.

He imagined he was watching the construction of the Great Pyramids at Giza--only this was twenty-five times bigger, with tanker trucks spraying perfumed water on the approach roads. He found the sight inspiring. All this ingenuity and labor, this delicate effort to fit maximum waste into diminishing space. The towers of the World Trade Center were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one. Bridges, tunnels, scows, tugs, graving docks, container ships, all the great works of transport, trade and linkage were directed in the end to this culminating structure. And the thing was organic, ever growing and shifting, its shape computer-plotted by the day and the hour. ...He looked at that soaring garbage and knew for the first time what his job was all about. Not engineering or transportation or source reduction. He dealt in human behavior, people's habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences but their kindnesses too, their generosity, and the question was how to keep this metabolism from overwhelming us."

* * * * * * * * *

"'War scared me alright but those lights, I have to tell you those lights were a complex sensation. Those planes on permanent alert, ever present you know, sweeping the Soviet borders, and I remember sitting out there rocking...and feeling a sense of awe, a child's sleepy feeling of mystery and danger and beauty. I think that is power. I think if you maintain a force in the world that comes into people's sleep, you are exercising a meaningful power. Because I respect power. Now that power is in shatters and tatters and now that those Soviet borders don't even exist in the same way, I think we understand, we look back, we see ourselves more clearly, and them as well. Power meant something thirty, forty years ago. It was stable, it was focused, it was a tangible thing. It was greatness, danger, terror, all those things. And it held us together, the Soviets and us. Maybe it held us together. You could measure things. You could measure hope and you could measure destruction. Not that I want to bring it back. It's gone, good riddance. But the fact is,...many of the things that were anchored to the balance of power and the balance of terror seem to be undone, unstuck. Things have no limits now. Money has no limits. I don't understand money anymore. Money is undone. Violence is undone, violence is easier now, it's uprooted, out of control, it has no measure anymore, it has no level of values.'"

-- Don DeLillo, Underworld

Photos: Werner Bartsch

13 February 2011

Kicking Off, Kicking Over

Well sure, there's a little too much truth in this little snarky item, but let's be fair...you pretty much needed the internet to get any decent discussion of what was going on in Egypt. Or at least you did in the U.S., with broadcast media being what it is. That latter sort of coverage mostly amounting to little more than skipping from points A to P without taking any time to analyze or discuss any of the nuances or context-specific intricacies. Point A being unreflective jubilance at seeing democracy usurp tyranny, and P being the fear-mongering about the Muslim Brotherhood. The former was the usual self-congratulatory end-of-history triumphalist rigmarole; the latter being the standard cynical ploy for racking up viewership by playing the alarmist/paranoia card, irrespective of actual socio-historic fact (such as: the peculiar role that the military plays in Egyptian society, and the fact the MB has its own credibility issues with much of the populace).

But the most annoying cliche of the week-plus had to be all the incessant and wildly hyperbolic banter about the role of social media in all of this. As if it was the prime catalyst, the overarching means to this end. To which one can only roll their eyes and say: Oh, pleeeease.

At any rate, in the face of all that, it was refreshing to read Paul Mason's bit at the BBC, "Twenty Reason Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere." As Mason warns, his list is quite off-the-cuff and generalized. Still, it's one the most sensible and salient things I've read on the matter so far. Of course, it doesn't only pertain to what's transpired in Egypt, but also elsewhere, including Greece and the UK. And there's perhaps some devils lurking in the details which might be pertinent to other major countries, as well. Take, for example, the following items....

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future.

[. . .]

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess - so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10. This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because - even where you get rapid economic growth - it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

11. To amplify: I can't find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations - but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.


Consider the numbers of the newly DIS-employed we've seen these past couple years. And not much being done about it, despite all the talk. So: what was done to the working classes for decades has lately been done to the American middle classes -- and lately many of the latter have been shocked to discover that they too are expendable, only so much surplus human capital in the global free-market economy. But this situation brings -- or eventually will bring -- certain issues to the table in a big way. Because as goes the middle class, so goes a huge potion of the nation's tax base; as well the largest demographic block of voters. At which point, some giant mutant chickens are going to come home to roost. Because let's face it: If there's been one thing that has proven most disruptive to the neoliberalist narrative in recent years, it's been how China has proven that -- contrary to all previous presumptions and known formulae -- yes, there is and can be such a thing as authoritarian state capitalism. At which point certain folk may have to divest themselves of certain notions and ruses, certain illusions. The end result being that maybe the U.S. will retire the last and the largest of its self-defining myths to the proverbial dustbin, and take a few pages from China's book.

11 February 2011

Near West

Taking a break from architectural images and the like, a little something about what goes on between the brickwork, between buildings. Social space, as the parlance has it...

photos: Lou Fourcher

Quite a nice batch of photos in this pool of street scenes from the near west side of Chicago, circa 1971. (More about the photographer here.) As the person who posted the photos remarks, the neighborhood in question has changed a lot since then -- displaced, erased, redeveloped. Of course, that's how it goes in many cities these days, especially over the past decade or so. Hell, by the time I left Chicago, there were parts of town I used to know well, but would find myself suddenly getting lost in due the disappearance of so many landmarks & whatnot.

Got me thinking about the various histories that were tied up with certain parts of the city -- especially those that surrounded downtown on the near-north,-west, and -south sides. Especially, certain shots reminded me of the movie Cornbread, Earl & Me (which was based on the 1966 novel Hog Butcher, by Chicago author Ronald Fair). Between that film, Cooley High, and Good Times, it was as if for a time in the 1970s certain parts of the city -- not too many blocks from the one pictured above -- served as an archetypal backdrop for inner city coming-of-age stories.

Plus, in the 1960s, there was the controversy surrounding the building of the UIC campus, which involved the forced uprooting and dispersal of an entire community after its residents put up a long battle against city hall. All of which provided author and social documentarian Studs Terkel with the subject for the first of his oral histories, Division Street: America. And there's historic Maxwell Street, which also fell under the path of the UIC's bulldozers while I was there.

So the whole area depicted in the pool bears only a faint resemblance to its former self -- in terms of its community and appearance. But if you travel below Cermak Road -- into the ungentrified parts of the Bronzeville community and other places thereabouts -- you find that large stretches of the southside haven't changed much over the decades, and still look a lot like this.

{And many thanks to mi amiga Jess for bringing this photopool to my attention.}

07 February 2011

Dancing About Architecture, II: Endlos Haus

Amusing. As the press release has it...

"An obelisk of noise that rose rudely above the treetops of the Bialowieska Forest, the Endless House project shone for a mere six weeks in the spring of 1973. The outlandish brainchild of wealthy audiophile/maniac Jiri Kantor, its stated mission was 'to become the cradle of a new European sonic community... a multimedia discotheque' that should 'surprise and delight' artists and dancers alike. ...The brilliant Czech may have made his millions as the midas-touched entrepreneur/taste-maker behind Paris-based magazine Otium International, but Endless House was always a vanity project as irredeemably vain as its maker..."

As Simon points out, this appears to be the latest in a series of a certain type of high-concept hoax -- the sort that involves crafty marketing campaigns built around the invented legacies of "lost" artists. Judging from the video, it looks like the architectural component was inspired by the sort of "visionary" utopianist schools that flourished during Modernism's waning days in the late 1960s and early 1970s. mostly inspired by the work of the Viennese Haus-Rucker-Co firm....

Haus-Rucker-Co were reputedly inspired by the S.I. and its theories on "play" in relation to psychogeographics, which had partially evolved out of Constant Nieuwenhuys's notions of "unitary urbanism" and his proposed New Babylon, a mutable urban environment to be peopled by a nomadic populace of "homo ludens"...

All of which points back to the "polydimensional" Endless House designed by Frederick Kiesler in 1950...

As it turns out, the specific image that's been circulating in connection with the Endless House compilation is actually of the Klein Bottle House in Australia. As far as the music on the thing is concerned, it's appropriately reminiscent of German e-music circa the early-mid 'seventies. Not sure who exactly is responsible, but I'm assuming it was created by affiliates of the Dramatic label performing under various assumed names. For the curious, 20JFG provides some additional samples here and here.

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