28 May 2011

Concrete Islands

"Photographed by Bel Geddes’ associate Richard Garrison, 'The City of Tomorrow' appears as a pristine metropolis only slightly occluded by wisps of fog and yet draped in dramatic shadows. Some photographs utilize shallow focus to give a sense of the extraordinary scale and space being depicted. In others, the model appears as if photographed on a sound stage. Yet all of the advertisements follow a similar structure. They begin with a quote from Bel Geddes, touted in the ads as an 'expert in future trends.' From that point on, explanatory texts describe Garrison’s photographs, many which focus on the relation between the city and the highway (or architecture and automobile). Everything about these images indeed suggest that the relationship between these two is unequal. More importantly, they envision the year 1960 as much more than an era of mobile urbanism, but one where highway planning becomes the primary engine for urban design."

Where B. F. Skinner and Le Corbusier cross paths. Behavioralism, advertising, urban design, and the commercial branding of the future. Enrique Ramirez at a456 offers an overview of the team behind the City of Tomorrow from General Motors' "Futurama" exhibit at the 1939 World Fair.

27 May 2011

Peak Production

Iraqi Oil, photography series by Pieter Ten Hoopen, 2009.

26 May 2011

The Ownership Society, II

"The faux-pas term of the 2000s, intellectual property is nearly impossible to protect. There are only two options left: a police state, or to turn the whole thing off -- to drive tanks into the Ukraine (major server farms such as Tangram are based there) and shut down every single machine. Let's just abandon it now; the idea of intellectual property never helped artists or those on the receiving end anyway, just corporate interests. Richard Prince -- unthinkable today! And the old European business model that grounds the concept doesn't translate well to other cultures. For example, the Chinese language has many words to describe things that are neither copy nor original, some even suggesting that a copy is the more valuable of the two."

- Christian von Borries, Berlin composer, conductor
and filmmaker (in the April issue of Artforum)

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"As in the United States and Europe, a handful of contemporary painters in China can command hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for each of their highly creative works... . But the main push by China has been in the broad market for works that retail for $500 or less, with painters who work from postcards or images on the Internet or, in Mr. Zhang's case, a large, dog-eared copy of an art book in English on van Gogh."
- New York Times, July 15, 2005

photos: Michael Wolf, The Copy Artists, China, 2006

24 May 2011

Illadelph Halflife

Partly of urb ex interest, but mostly concerned with historical documentation, the wordpress blog Ruins/NFR is devoted to "a continuing series in the social history of Philadelphia’s built environment, a study of the forces that cause landscapes and structures to come into and pass out of existence." Sifting through accounts of the city's past as well as charting its contemporary development, the site appears to be the work of a sole proprietor. Considering Philly's size and complexity, I can't help but wonder how the site would shape up if it were the work of multiple contributors.

In other Philly-related news, it appears that Schoolly D has been writing a weekly column for Philebrity these past several months.

22 May 2011

Processed Instant God: Straggling Endnotes to an Era

NYT piece on Chayevsky's notes to self throughout his development of the screenplay for Network.

* * * * *

And then there's this item, hot off the wire...

'You Light Up My Life' composer kills self, police say.

The man who composed the pop hit "You Light Up My Life" ended his own life Sunday, New York police said.

Joseph Brooks, 73, was facing charges on 11 alleged rapes and sex assaults, New York Police Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne said.

The songwriter was found dead in his Manhattan home by a friend with whom he was supposed to have lunch at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Browne said.

A plastic dry cleaning bag and a towel were wrapped around his head, with a tube connected to a helium tank attached, he said. A suicide note was found nearby, he said.

Brooks' son, Nicholas Brooks, was charged in January with the murder of his ex-girlfriend, according to the Manhattan District Attorney's office.

No Accounting for Taste

Via a recent edition of the e-flux journal, Boris Groys on "Art and Money," and the notion that certain kinds of the former exist due to the support of an "elite"...

"Our contemporary world, though, is primarily an artificially produced world—in other words, it is produced primarily by human work. However, even if today’s wider populations produce artworks, they do not investigate, analyze, and demonstrate the technical means by which they produce them—let alone the economic, social, and political conditions under which images are produced and distributed. Professional art, on the other hand, does precisely that—it creates spaces in which a critical investigation of contemporary mass image production can be effectuated and manifested. This is why such a critical, analytical art should be supported in the first place: if it is not supported, it will be not only hidden and discarded, but, as I have already suggested, it would simply not come into being. And this support should be discussed and offered beyond any notion of taste and aesthetic consideration. What is at stake is not an aesthetic, but a technical, or, if you like, poetic, dimension of art."

Groys navigates his argument by way of (perversely enough) two noted essays by Clement Greenberg -- specifically "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" and "The Plight of Culture." Admittedly, the piece meanders and gets a bit knotty at times, yet Groys manages to stay fairly on-point in terms of unpacking and demystifying certain misconception about how the artworld supposedly "works." Ultimately, his thesis is has it that it isn't so much monied, bourgeoisie, institutional elites that keep foster or bolster certain types of seemingly esoteric art modes and practices, but rather the judgement and support of the "productivist" elites of artists themselves.1

This, of course, raises all sorts of theoretical considerations. What interests me more is the more at the issues that fall more squarely in the domain of aesthetics. Specially, the matter of how a given work or art engages an audience, how it expresses or communicates something to someone, and how the canon shapes up in relation to these considerations.

There are "artist's artists," just as there are "musician's musicians," "writer's writers," and so on. Anyone who devotes their time of energy invested in any given area of artistic activity knows this. How a given artist/writer/whatever achieves this status varies, but it often hinges on a specialized knowledge of the matters of craftmanship -- a critique or appreciation based in technical or formalistic considerations.2

For the past 3-4 decades, formalism has taken a consistent bashing, having long since become a dirty (or, at the very least, dismissive) term in critical circles. But I'd argue that any artists that's worth their weight in salt is ultimately a formalist -- whether consciously or innately. They're geared to think in terms of things like color, composition, texture, materials, physical properties, scale, etc. (Effectively, the syntax by which a work communicates with the viewer/audience.) If they're not, then they've pretty much got it all ass-backwards and the likelihood is very high that they're making lousy work -- work that fails to engage or impart anything to the viewer.

Critics factor into this too, naturally. And they're also considered (rather naively) viewed as constituting some sort of powerful "elite" of their own in all of this. But the role of the critic in much of what Groys is addressing is a little more peripheral. There is, I believe, also a fundamental disconnect or a major degree of removal that spereates the judgement of critics from those of producers. Critics and art historians most often tend to think in linear or compartmentalizing terms -- to imposing or applying those types of narratives in terms of situating a work or artist into some context or another. On the other hand, artists (the good ones, anyway) generally have a much more oblique or diffuse way of making connections across a broad range of artworks and cultural artifacts -- connection that are not only visual, but also thematic, materialistic, and critical in nature.

Joseph Bueys stating to an audience that the work of Jackson Pollock was one of the century's greatest artistic achievements; and that if you don't get that, then you don't understand art. Richard Prince responding to an interviewer that if there was one piece of art he'd like to own, it'd be a DeKooning. Gerhard Richter getting all huffy with Benjamin Buchloh when the latter asserted that Richter's smeared abstract paining were ironic postmod corruptions of the authorial gestures of Ab Ex. If you do much reading in the history of contemporary art, you occasionally runs into this sort of scenario. And it never fails to amuse when you encounter them, because they demonstrate the disconnect I mentioned above -- an instance of a critic or historian projecting an aesthetic position on an particular artist, basing their assumption on a readymade or commonly accepted reading of the artist's work. But it's seldomly as simple or limited as that.3

image: Christopher Wool, Untitled, 1990

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1. I know, nothing so murky as bring the term/idea of an "elite" (or "elitism") into a discussion. I long ago dropped the term from my own vocab due to its rhetorical bankruptcy. And employing the term "avant-garde" in this day and age is as equally embarrassing and problematic. But since those are the terms Groys uses (if only for the sake of notional shorthand), we'll let them stand for the time being.

2. I realize that this hardly makes for a finalizing, airtight thesis. For instance, over the years I've known more than a few musicians that I thought had (sometimes) lousy taste in music. Reason being that their technical knowledge and ability sometimes drove them to appreciate something merely for technical reasons -- i.e. to bravura and "virtuosity" for its own sake, thus occasionally being taken in by what some would call "vulgar showmanship." Yes, Al Di Meola can play "really fast." Yeah, Maynard Ferguson can play really loudly. And yes, Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto is really complex. And...?

3. As far as the matter of canon-shaping and art practices are concerned, and I also found that the Groys essay touches on topics that turn up (in varying degrees) in this and this item which've crossed by path recently.

20 May 2011

Shooting Blanks

Went to see this last weekend and was pleasantly surprised. Truth be told, I went in with somewhat fairly low expectations -- what, having seen any number of anemic documentaries in recent years, and not exactly having my doubts assuaged by the fact that the film poster prominently sported an image of Lydia Lunch. Turns out the filmmaker Celine Danhier did a very, very nice job on the thing. Pulled in a proper number and selection of people to interview, managed to hunt down untold amounts of rare and nearly-lost footage, and kept the whole thing tight, briskly paced, and deeply interesting and engaging. And when all was aid and done, the bits with Lydia Lunch were not only surprisingly unannoying, but also quite funny at times.

The thing kicks off with New York City in the 1970s, in all its glorious decrepitude and economic blightedness. This was, of course, the NYC that had attracted a broad array of young aspiring artists, writers, and assorted dilettantes since the late '60s, a fair number of whom made up the creme of the CBGB's crop. Among this crowd were a number of people who made up the new generation of D.I.Y/No Wave filmmakers who took the ball that the likes of Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, Shirley Jackson, Andy Warhol, and John Cassavetes got rolling in previous decade and running with it. Inspired by the films of Godard and Fassbinder and others, they made films however they could; usually working in 8mm, always using friends, acquaintances, local characters, various and sundry scenesters and nonprofessionals in their work. The pioneer for all of this being Amos Poe...

Amos Poe, Unmade Beds, 1976

Soon to be followed by James Nares, Eric Mitchell, Scott & Beth B, Vivienne Dick, Michael Oblowitz, and (eventually) Jim Jarmusch. Danhier tracks all of these people down, each of whom were generous with their time and recollections. Of this bunch, I'd say it was Scott & Beth B that I remember hearing about in the early '80s, and whose work most intrigued me. One item of theirs that I was interested in was Letters to Dad, a short film in which they get a group of friends to play the roles of member of the People's Temple, offering talking-head readings of letters written to the Reverend Jim Jones. And as luck would have it, someone recently uploaded it to Youtube. Technology works, technology delivers. Tsk....

Of this bunch, I'd say it was Scott & Beth B's work that I remember hearing about in the early '80s, and whose work most intrigued me. One item of theirs that I was interested in was Letters to Dad, a short film in which they get a group of friends and associates (Arto Lindsay, Ida Applebroog, et al.) playing the roles of members of the People's Temple as they offer talking-head readings of letters written to the Reverend Jim Jones. The films of Scott and Beth B. (particularly Black Box and Vortex) and those of other No-wavers (Eric Mitchell's Kidnapped) often returned to certain nasty and unsettling themes, the sort that helped sets the tone for a number of films that would issue from the NYC underground film movement in the years thereafter. Abduction, torture, interrogation, and death. Such stuff, one of the interviewees explains, was inspired by recent events -- the Baader-Meinhoff, the SLA, recent revelations about the variety of atrocities performed by C.I.A. operatives and agents -- that were still weighing heavily on the cultural imagination and which seemed to reflect the turbulence of the times.

Among those interviewed in the course of the film, John Lurie and Ann Magnuson offer some of the best accounts, providing both detailed and broad-swath descriptions of the bygone scene. Each had their reflections on how the scene and city changed during the 1980s. Lurie recalls when Jean-Michel Basquiat became a big art star, saying, "And suddenly he was acting like you weren't cool if you didn't have money. Up to that point, we'd all had the attitude that having money was something that wasn't cool." Magnuson, on the other hand, tells of how real estate speculation drove rents up and flushed artists of their enclaves, and how extensively the arrival of AIDS in the middle of the decade affected the arts community. Having lost a number of close friends, colleagues, and her own brother to the disease, she chokes up as she recounts, "It was like seeing all your friends and loved ones being lined up and sent off to their doom."

With the 1980s came the "Cinema of Transgression" movement, which Blank City covers in length, dealing with the films of the movement's instigator Nick Zedd, as well as the work of Richard Kern, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, and Kembra Pfahler. Kern, in turn, speaks of the work of his late friend and former roommate David Wojnarowicz, the artist of recent posthumous notoriety who appeared in several of Kern's films...

Richard Kern, You Killed Me First, 1985

Admittedly, it was this latter batch films that I was always dubious about. Back the day, much of the attention they received came by way of underground music fanzines, meaning that discussion was usually pretty short on substance and long on highlighting the varied shocks and sorditities of the films' controversial content. Supposedly it was all somehow subversive, but subverting what exactly was never said.1 Blank City manages to resituate these films in a broader context. As the various filmmakers assert, much of their work was initially intended as toxic reaction against the Age of Reagan -- be it the nuclear-armed antagonizing of the Soviets, or the malignant hypocrisy of the politics of "family values."2 The other neglected aspect of this body of work that Blank City helps foreground is its inate humor -- the borderline camp of the over-the-top manner in which the sex and violence play out.

Amidst the montage of all these rarefied, marginal, and cultish fare, the movement's bigger-budgeted, breakout films like Smithereens, Wild Style, Stranger Than Paradise, and Downtown 81 make an appearance -- films that pointed the way toward the resurgence of American independent film in the latter half of 1980s. Yet these films first emerged when the American cultural landscape was in a state of flux. The 1970s, after all, had started with the Hollywood studio system in the midst of a crisis and deep recession. In their scramble to find new films and fresh talent that would bring audiences into theaters, the studios allowed a number of younger filmmakers their chance behind the camera, thus ushering in a short-lived era of American auteurism. As George Lucas, then an underling to Francis Ford Coppola, stated in 1973: "The studio system is dead. It died...when the corporations took over and the studio heads suddenly became agents and lawyers and accountants. The power is with the people now. The workers have the means of production. The future is going to be with independent filmmakers. ...We’re all forging ahead on the rubble of the old industry." Irony, then, that it would be Lucas who would help kill of this same phase in American filmmaking and help bring about the return of the Hollywood blockbuster. Yet, at that same time, somewhere in New York, a number of loosely associated people decided on other ways of going about it. As one of the filmmakers in Blank City put it, "We decided to make a film that'd be something we'd want to watch."3

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1. I suspect this was because, at the time, dragging politics or sociological specifics into something was the most uncool thing a person could do. But I'm also certain that it was also the people who usually published and contributed to these sorts of fanzines often weren't all that bright to begin with.

2. As Richard Kern suggests in the film, this latter aspect connects more deeply with the work David Wojnarowicz. For those that don't know the story: Wojnarowicz had some to New York at the age age of fourteen, having run away from home in New Jersey, where his alcoholic and ex-Marine dad had regularly terrorized the entire family while in the throes of his frequent drunken rages. Wojnarowicz survived on the streets of New York as a teenage prostitute before finally meeting up with Kern and made the gradual transition into a career as a self-taught artist. Wojnarowicz's father would later hang himself in the basement of the family's home.

3. The topography of the NYC art scene of the era had its varied factions and subdivisions. Those that are associated with the art boom of the 1980s are usually consigned to one of two camps. First, there was the "uptown" set, which sported many of the big names and overnight successes that were represented via the Mary Boone Gallery and other such outlets – Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons, et al. These were the more "serious" artists of the lot -- focused and professional. Then there was the "downtown" set that centered around the East Village scene -- dilettantish, drug-addled, eclectically dabbling in multiple disciples (performance art, making films, starting bands, etc.), and operating through a series of short-lived, makeshift galleries, this was the scene that produced or attracted the likes of Basquiat, Keith Haring, Wojnarowicz. It was to this latter bunch that the filmmakers featured in Blank City belonged. Not that it makes much difference, in the end. When the art bubble burst at the end of the 1980s, the whole kaboodle became the brunt of a critical backlash. Viewed as being fueled by an excess of hype and novelty and speculation, the unanimous tendency for years thereafter was to write the whole scene off with a baby-with-the-bathwater dismissal; regarding the whole matter as irreparably tainted by hyperbole and feckless bullshit. Of the two, it was the downtown East Village scene that took the more thorough trashing.

17 May 2011

Waving, Not Drowning

I believe I said something a while ago about a possible slowdown, and damn if I didn't deliver as promised. Apologies. I've been busy with a numbing freelance gig that doesn't allow for much spare bandwidth and leaves me disinclined to spend any more time at the computer that necessary. But more soon.

One thing that's crossed my path recently was this bit that a journalist friend sent me. But really, it's a trend that I noticed a while back, and that I believe has radically accelerated within the past 5-6 years. What I haven't noticed, however, is this situation being mentioned or analyzed into discussions about the supposed "death of criticism." What this means is that in the future, everything is going to be "dynamic," "innovative," "unique," "amazing," and all sorts of things to that effect. Or, as my friend put it, it means that he and his colleagues are now "outgunned in the war on bullshit."

02 May 2011

The Truth Out There

There is, it seems, one and only one news story today. And damn if Carl didn't nail my waking thoughts exactly, what popped into my head as the wall-to-wall coverage roused me out of bed when the alarm went off this morning. We've had Truthers and Birthers, neither of which will ever be satisfied no matter what, always retreating into more assuredly byzantine and convoluted theories and narratives. So of course the next big wave in all of this is going to be Corpsers.

All of which I've seen today convincing me that I really need to go back to an old rule of mine -- the one about always ignoring the Comments section. The endless stacking of conspiracy theory on conspiracy theory, and the escalating rabidity all around. There's a general estimation in clinical circles that about 14% of the gen population suffers from one form of mental illness or another. But when you're scrolling through the Comments section of many sites, you'd swear it more like 40%, easily. Just fucking pretend that it doesn't even exist.

Batting around the latest round of theories with a journo friend, he responds with, "I think they made up the whole bit about burial at sea to hide the fact that he’s been stuffed and mounted. He’s currently hanging on the wall in Area 51, right next to Obama’s secret Kenyan birth certificate."

Of course. And the Twin Towers were hollow and had been for years, and were merely felled by a pair of lightweight missiles cloaked with holograms. And Obama just produced the clarly fraudulent document that's going to hang his by his gonads. And this is why I never turn the lights on, because light bulbs emit rays, and if you don't know what that means, then you're living in a darkness that's even deeper than the type I live in, my friend.

Anyway. So it seems all too fitting that The Atlantic pops up with this pair of items right now. First, a bit on Roswell, NM as a "postmodern tourism" destination...

What we end up with instead is something artificial that says a lot more about who we are as a culture—Las Vegas, for example. The city built by mobsters in the middle of the Nevada desert is a paradoxical monument to our hubris and a reflection of our baser instincts. It's a testament to the addictive power of gambling. No longer content to define their own Western American interpretation of utopia, newer Vegas casinos have been mimicking international cities such as Paris, Venice, and New York City. In the process, Las Vegas is transforming into an oversized Potemkin village that exists as an imitation of other cities. At some point someone will build a Las Vegas-themed casino, completing the circle of absurdity.

Simultaneously experiencing and interpreting Las Vegas in this way is, in a sense, postmodern tourism. Or one manifestation of it, since postmodernism doesn't really have a fixed definition. Postmodern tourism is one part viewing the world through the lens of symbol and illusion, one part personal interest, and one part ironic detachment. It might mean visiting Roswell, New Mexico, not for the history of alien visitation, but for the spectacle of American alien fascination.

And then the author goes on to cite both Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard on the matter, between citing the recent popularity of urban exploration. Overreaching perhaps for a publication like The Atlantic, and somehow still largely reducing "postmodernism" to a matter of mere irony.

The above trails another piece via The Atlantic Wire on recently declassified docs released online by the FBI, some of which involve a number of Roswell-related items, as well as a file on Project Bluebook. The files come by way of the FBI's Vault, in the "Unexplained Phenomenon" category. Also of interest might be some of what appears in the "Popular Culture" division, where you can check out files on Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Steve McQueen, Malcolm X, Bettie Page, Lenny Bruce, Senator Joe McCarthy, Colonel Sanders, KISS, Michael Jackson, Tiny Tim, Helen Keller, and a many others. There's also docs on a number of notable American authors from the 20th century. (Unsurprisingly, Nelson Algren's isn't among them. Many years ago I read that Algren's file dwarfed -- for whatever reason -- those of Hemingway and most of the other authors the Bureau had investigated.)

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