28 April 2014

“Yeah, this seems like a dick move,...it’s a dick move whenever a corporation rips off the creative output of an artist, especially an emerging artist. Even if [that artist] happens to be a war criminal.”
- Greg Allen, speaking to ANIMAL NY.

25 April 2014

Unbuilding, II

Returning again to the matter of ruins, there's the current exhibition at the Tate in London, titled "Ruin Lust." One of the exhibition's main curators is Brian Dillon, who's written a number of essays about the aesthetics of ruination in recent years. In fact, the Tate exhibit could be considered a straggling offshoot of an anthology on the topic that he edited for the Whitechapel Gallery's "Documents of Contemporary Art" series a few years ago.

The exhibition takes its name from the German term Ruinenlust, which hails back to the years of German Romanticism back in the late 18th century. In keeping with that Romanticist theme, the exhibit features works by Piranesi, Turner, Constable, and the like. From the looks of it, the selection is overwhelming drawn from the Tate's own collection -- including an assortment of works that include pieces by Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, John Latham, and a later, seldom-seen piece by Eduardo Paolozzi. Then there's the allotment by the most contemporary artists of the bunch including Keith Arnatt, and John Stezaker. Here we get a sense of the thematic thrust of the exhibit -- what is the sense of ruination that we have now, the sort that seems to too frequently emanate from our immediate surroundings? There's a great deal of recent work to illustrate this theme, be it the photographs that writer Jon Savage took around London over the course of two decades, Rachel Whiteread's photographs of tower blocks, Laura Oldfield Ford's drawings of housing estates, or David Shrigley's grimly sarcastic "Leisure Center."

With these examples, the exhibit zags into more charged territory, into the politics of space (public, domestic, etc.) in the contemporary built environment -- the anomie that too-commonly results from both well-intentioned civic pragmatism or the vagaries of rampantly haphazard real-estate speculation. Whichever the case, each included gives off a foreboding impression, if only because there isn't a human figure to be found in any of them. It's like a neutron-bomb school of urban development, reflective of the estrangement that results in a societal environ predicated on the logics of perpetual, unbroken progress, innovation, and "creative destruction." On this matter, one could turn to Dillon's Whitechapel anthology and find an excerpt from Mark Lewis's 2006 essay "Is Modernism Our Antiquity?", in which the author muses:
"The idea of a modernist ruin in the making, while compellingly seductive, seems depressingly elegiac and tautological at best. Didn't the images and forms of modernism have ruin, decay and obsolescence written into them? Was this not meant to serve as an inbuilt apotropaic function, all the better to protect against the future romantic appeal of their ruining? And do I really want to male an elegy to something like 'modernism's forgotten promise'? There's the rub. For today it is fundamentally a question of what is to be done as the artistic signs and images of emerging and developing modernity are rapidly becoming historical."
Lewis's rumination are, by his own acknowledgment, prompted by Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern, in which Latour argued that modernism was a paradox to begin with -- an a priori double-bind, like a blueprint with the terms of its own abandonment and demolition included as a preconditional contractor's clause.

Also included are excerpts from Jane and Louise Wilson's Sealander, their series of photographs of derelict WWII Nazi bunkers littered along the coastline of Normandy. The Wilsons have repeatedly dealt in this type of subject of the years -- ominous remnants of the Cold War era like underground military nuclear missile facilities, the East Berlin Stasi archives, and the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan. The Sealander series of course follows after theorist Paul Virilio's Bunker Archeology, his book of photographs of the very same bunkers; his own taken in the late 1950s and early 1960s, after he came across the structures while roaming the beaches of Northern France. In the accompanying texts, Virilio passingly compares the bunkers and the modernist functional architectural forms of Le Corbusier and Brutalism, but asserts that as structures their utility was the product of another logic altogether -- that belonging to the culture of total war. At one point he writes:
"Anachronistic in normal periods, in peacetime, the bunker appears as a survival machine, as a shipwrecked submarine on a beach. It speaks to us of other elements, of terrific atmospheric pressure, of an unusual world in which science and technology have developed the possibility of final disintegration. If the bunker can be compared to a milestone, to a stele, it is not so much for its system of inscriptions as it is for its position, its configuration of materials and accessories: periscopes, screens, filters, etc. The monolith does not aim to survive down through the centuries; the thickness of its walls translates only the probable power of impact in the instant of assault. The cohesion of the material corresponds here to the immateriality of the new war environment; in fact, matter only survives with difficulty in a world of continuous upheaval. The landscape of contemporary war is that of a hurricane projecting and dispersing, dissipating and disintegrating through fusion and fission as it goes along."
At another:
"The immensity of this project was what defies common sense: total war was revealed here in its mythic dimensions. ...A long history was curled up here. These concrete blocks were indeed the final throw-offs of the history of frontiers, from the Roman limes to the Great Wall of China; the bunkers, as ultimate military surface structure, had shipwrecked at lands' limits, at the precise moment of the sky's arrival in war; they marked off the horizontal littoral, the continental limit. History had changed course one final time before jumping into the immensity of aerial space."

Curiously, the exhibit has its own set of accompanying workshops, the last of which is "The Unofficial Countryside," which focuses on "the modern edgelands that ring our cities and soft corners of the countryside," under the premise of asking "Industrial brownfields, landfills, suburbs: Are these the ruins of our modern age?" In the exhibition, this examination of terrain vague is exemplified by images from Keth Arnatt's landscape series A.O.N.B.(Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty); and by excerpts from Paul Graham's Troubled Land, his collection of photos taken throughout Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

Ruin Lust is also rounded out by selection of Tacita Dean's past work, and by the curious inclusion of a re-anacted version of Gerard Byrne's 1984 and Beyond -- a 3-channel video re-enactment modeled after an 1963 Playboy magazine roundtable discussion with Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and eight other science-fiction authors, in which the participants were asked to give their speculative thoughts on what the future would be like.

* * * *

Speculative futures, ruination and entropy, terrain vague -- these things were a constant source of fascination and inspiration for both author J. G. Ballard and the artist Robert Smithson. It was this that provided the focus for Tacita Dean's recent film project JG. In a way, the film is reflective of a sort of aesthetic love triangle. Dean has long been inspired by the work of Smithson and Ballard. In turn, Ballard wrote admiringly of Dean's work (especially her texts). Smithson was an avid reader of science fiction, and was particularly taken with Ballard's work, which proved a huge influence on the artist in the mid-late 1960s. And Ballard was quite taken with Smithson's earthworks, no doubt recognizing that he and Smithson shared similar interests and ideas.

In a write-up of the film at the East of Borneo site, contributor Rachel Valinsky fleetingly references a tertiary text by Ballard titled "Robert Smithson as Cargo Cultist." Not having encountered the Ballard piece before, I do a quick scramble to locate it. It's a short piece, only some 7-8 paragraphs long, the last portion of which reads:
"Fifty thousands years from now our descendants will be mystified by the empty swimming pools of an abandoned southern California and Cote d’Azur, lying in the dust like primitive time machines or the altar of some geometry obsessed religion. I see Smithson’s monuments belonging in the same category, artefacts intended to serve as machines that will suddenly switch themselves on and begin to generate a more complex time and space. All his structures seem to be analogues of advanced neurological processes that have yet to articulate themselves.

:Reading Smithson’s vivid writings, I feel he sensed all this. As he stands on the Spiral Jetty he resembles Daedalus inspecting the ground plan of the labyrinth, working out the freight capacity of his cargo terminal, to be measured in the units of a neurological deep time. He seems unsure whether the cargo has been delivered.

"His last flight fits into the myth, though for reasons of his own he chose the wrong runway, meeting the fate intended for his son. But his monuments endure in our minds, the ground plans of heroic psychological edifices that will one day erect themselves and whose shadows we can already see from the corners of our eyes."
It seems the Ballard piece in question has rarely been reprinted, but the full text of it can be read here.

23 April 2014


Images: Thomas Struth, view from Mount Bental, Golan Heights, 2009.

17 April 2014

Two East German Defectors Walk Into an Art Gallery...

* * * *
Interview between John Anthony Thwaites and Gerhard Richter, written by Sigmar Polke, October 1964

JAT:  Mr. Richter, you are the most talented of the German Pop painters; you went through all the hardships and the hostility that the movement encountered in its early days; and you now occupy a leading position in the movement. Perhaps you can tell us something about your work and your artistic development.

GR:  I have a lot of work, and I am well developed artistically, and also mentally and physically. I pull the expander front and back. And if you saw my new pictures, Mr. Thwaites, you would collapse!

JAT:  Why?

GR:  Because they’re so good! You’ve never seen such good pictures in your life. No one has ever seen such good pictures, and I can’t show them to anyone, because everyone would collapse. So in the first place I hung cloths over all the pictures, and then in due course I overpainted them all white.

JAT:  And now?

GR:  Now I don’t paint at all any more, because I don’t want to have the whole human race on my conscience.

JAT:  How many victims have your works accounted for?

GR:  I don’t know, exactly. The exact statistics do exist, of course – they run into the tens of thousands – but I can’t concern myself with trivia. It was more interesting earlier on, when the big death camps in Eastern Europe were using my pictures. The inmates used to drop dead at first sight. Those were still the simple pictures, too. Anyone who survived the first show was killed off by a slightly better picture.

JAT:  And your drawings?

GR:  I haven’t done a lot. Buchenwald and Dachau had two each, and Bergen-Belsen had one. Those were mostly used for torture purposes.

JAT:  The Russians are said to have five of your paintings and drawings. Is that so?

GR:  I don’t know how many.

JAT:  Stalin mounted his reign of terror with two pictures. After killing millions of Russians, it’s said that he caught an accidental glimpse of one of your pictures, just for a fraction of a second, and immediately dropped down dead. Is that so?

GR:  I don’t know. One of my best paintings is in the Soviet Union.

JAT:  So what happens next?

GR:  I don’t paint any more. I can’t, because I don’t want to spread terror, alarm and anxiety everywhere, and depopulate the earth. But now it’s come to the point where I only have to think my paintings out and tell someone about them, and the person rushes off in a state of panic, has a nervous breakdown, and becomes infertile. That is the worst effect. Though I can’t say so for sure, as yet, because – depending on who tells the story – I have already caused dumbness, hair loss (mainly in women) and paralysis of limbs.

JAT:  Is it true that you supply paintings to the U.S. Army?

GR:  I can’t tell you anything about that.

JAT:  Have you no scruples, or anything?

GR:  I am an artist.

JAT:  Do you believe in God?

GR:  Yes, I believe in myself. I am the greatest, I am the greatest of all!

JAT:  Thank you, Mr. Richter.

GR:  Not at all, Mr. Thwaites.
* * * *

Now being reminded (via stumbling-upon) of the bit above, which I'd completely forgotten about, having first encountered it in a book I owned some years ago.

I know that the concept of the “fatal/killing joke” (as in, “die laughing”) had been around long before the Monty Python skit based on the same premise, had been around for a long time – but deadly paintings? Gallows humor in a Cold War context of postwar Germany, as well as a cynical dismissal of the heroic notion of “art as a weapon.” Also, it hints at the pair’s own anxieties about pursuing the quaint and retrograde practice of making paintings at the dawn of the consumer age – the suspected pointlessness of creating singular, hand-crafted images amidst the deluge of mass-circulated imagery pouring forth by way of magazines, advertisements, movies and TV, etc.. “Cynical” in that one, perhaps, could only continue to paint or make art by shrugging off the suspicion that doing so meant pursuing an increasingly marginalized, devalued, insignificant endeavor.*

The cynicism and dark humor of the “interview” are most likely attributable to Polke. Jokes about the feebleness of art in the postmodern age were a constant trope in his work throughout the years. For instance, a painting produced by Polke some five years after the text above, in which the artists has a laugh at the “transcendental” conceits of the pure-abstraction school of painting...

...In which the purity of the composition is sullied (if not nullified) by the intrusion of text, text which roughly translates as, “Higher powers command: paint the upper right corner black!” (And in that font, no less.) And then there's this one from 1976, with its obvious reference to the Nazi-via-malappropraited-Nietzschean übermenschen theme, transplanted into a postwar setting...

...About which I always wondered if Polke didn't derive the idea from the title of Norman Mailer's famous essay about JFK's nomination at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

Such was the character of Sigmar Polke’s anti-mannerisms – corrosive irony combined with a pomo pastiche sensibility that appeared to disregard all notions of “high” and “low,” thus allowing a maximal accommodation for the most garish of decorative kitsch. Add to this his seemingly arbitrary or slipshod methods in the craftsmanship department, his incessant flirtation with visual murkiness, if not outright “ugliness.” Problematic and abrasive enough for some audiences, one supposes, were it not all capped off with – of course – the artist’s recurrent visual allusions to the repressed demons of Germany’s recent past. “For him,” critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote of Polke, “Aesthetic decorum appears to be roughly as important in the present state of civilization as table manners during an air raid.” Unsurprisingly, hazy accusations of borderline “nihilism” have occasionally been made by some critics.**

At any rate, Sigmar Polke will most likely be the subject of some long-overdue inkage on these shores on account of the MoMA retrospective that's presently kicking off. High time, too. Polke received only a bit of letting attention in the U.S. previously – mostly back in the days of so-called “German Invasion” early phase of the 1980s NYC art boom. I believe at the time his work was touted as an acknowledged precursor to that of art-boom passing fancy David Salle. But ultimately Polke’s work proved a little “too German” – that is, too esoteric and impenetrable – for American eyes; because the attention fell away, soon enough. The spotlight would mostly go to Anselm Kiefer for the remainder of the decade, before critical consensus began to finally settle on Richter as the most important European artist of his generation.***

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*  Wasn’t there something along these lines serving as a theme in Wim Wenders’s 1991 film Until the End of the World – a character at some pointing morosely muttering about contemporary life being overrun by a “disease of images”? Difficult for me to recall the context, as it’s been about two decades since I saw the film.

**  In this respect, it could be argued that between Richter and Polke, the latter proved to be far more of an influence on younger artists in West Germany – particularly the “bad boy” Cologne coterie of Kippenberger, Oehlen, Büttner, etc.

***  In retrospect, it would seem that the American artworld craze for postwar German art mostly served to buttress the legitimacy of emerging NYC art trends. By which I mean: Polke as an establishing precedent for Salle; Georg Baselitz and A. R. Penck cast in the supporting roles for the neo-expressionism of Schnabel, Rothenberg, et al., and so on. Like some stealthily-chauvinistic booster campaign that whispers, "We've got credit in the Old World!."

15 April 2014

Life: A Remote User's Manual


Was It Ever So Simple?

Is an obsession with the past the sign of a morbid disposition? Obsession in the case meaning a constant rehashing of past occurrences and achievements – done for the sake of assuaging an anxious sense of stasis, degeneration, impasse, or reversion in the present. I find myself wondering this in recent months, as the news offers an incessant series of anniversaries – of this or that landmark legislation, historical milestone, technological innovation, tragic event or horrific massacre, etcetera etcetera etcetera. This, admittedly, might simply just another example of the news cycle doing what it does – filling news holes and broadcast time with whatever it can, especially if that whatever is easier to explain than (say) what's going on in Syria or Crimea.

At any rate...some time ago Simon mentioned the matter of retromantic tendencies within the artworld of the moment. I wasn't so convinced at first, but soon conceded that it was a trend, albeit a marginal and trifling one. In the interim, there have been several retro- exhibitions, curatorial events that have aimed – in some form or another – to restage or revisit some paradigm-shifting exhibition of years gone by. One can easily guess the likely candidates in advance. And yet another one is presently in the offing, that being the Jewish Museum's repackaging to their historic "Primary Structures" exhibition – the 1966 show being that one that offered audiences a survey of Minimalist art practices as embodied in the works of Tony Smith, Anthony Caro, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Anne Truitt, Ronald Bladen, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Daniel Bell, and others. Minimalism had been around for at least 5-6 years by that point, so it wasn't entirely new; but the exhibition marked the first time that the "New Art" tendency gained the notice of the broader public and the media.

Not that this amounted to public acceptance at the time, merely recognition. Minimalist art would remain controversial for years thereafter. Over the intervening half century, its legacy remained has mixed. For instance: In terms of artistic practices and impulses, did Minimalism mark the end of something, or the beginning? Some would answer "yes" to the first, framing in terms as an extremist end-gaming extension of Greenbergian notions of puristic formalism, reductive literalism, and "medium specificity." Others might argue the latter point, asserting that Minimalism constituted a break from the Greenbergian model of modernist art, and was partly responsible for introducing prefabrication and permutational seriality into art-making practices that are still very much with us today.*

The current Jewish Museum reboot affair is titled "Other Primary Structures," is the first of a two-part exhibit, and touts itself as a "sequel" and a "response" to the 1966 original. As such, it aims for historical revisionism – expanding upon its predecessor's Anglo/North American bias by including the work of artists who were supposedly doing comparable things in other places (e.g. Brazil, Croatia) around the same time. As Roberta Smith states in her NYT review, "Other Primary Structures" suffers from a number of weaknesses, not the least of which is the nature of its laissez-faire premise. Personally, I think it's a bit of curatorial overreach to try and shoehorn works by the likes of Brazilian Neo-Concretist artists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica into the mix, considering that the artists involved in each respective group were pursuing very different ideas.**  But it looks like we can expect more of this sort of porousness in the second part of the exhibition, which will feature work by then-contemporaneous artists from Latin American, Eastern Europe, Israel, and Africa.

One has to allow for a fair amount of contextual slippage for this premise to work. But it's well-intentioned, I suppose. At the very least, viewers are introduced to a number of previously unknown or neglected artists. Still, by choosing to lump it in under the title of the original exhibition (even with the tacked-on "Other" qualifier), one can't but the belated inductees are still subsumed subjuncts to the Established Narrative. But that's the nature of trying to stick with the favored categorizations of art in the 1960s. It's messy business. Art practices were fragmenting, having already split off in a number of directions within first year of the decade. As Minimalism was first coming into being, so was it's nemesis – the artistic sensibility that some labeled "postminimalism," as embodied in the works of Eve Hesse, Lee Bontecou, Paul Thek, et al. Even some of the chief Minimalists (e.g., Morris, Serra) would schizophrenically vascilate between the two tendencies a few years down the road, as Bataillian ideas of the visceral, the unstable, and the uncanny began to increasingly gain traction. (Which points in the direction of another recently-resurrected exhibit, bringing us back to "When Attitudes Become Form.")

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

*  There are other ways of looking at it, as well. For example: Perhaps as a passing resurgence of a Constructivist sensibility, its onotology-of-objecthood possibly intended as a brutely materialist rebuttal to the romanticism and mysticism embodied by "color field" painters like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, et al.?

If anything, the movement helped introduce usher in the phenomenon of the artist and theorist and critic, be it in relation to his own work and that of his immediate peers; with artists like Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Sol LeWit, Dan Graham, and Robert Smithson stepping into the critical process and providing the central texts. Granted, at the time there were a handful of new critics – Barbara Rose, Lucy Lippard, Gregory Battock – who proved willing and able to analyze the work, and recognized its significance. But to read their early essays on Minimalist work if to find them floundering, grasping to nail down its key concepts, if not devise an aesthetic vocabulary for discussing the work in the first place. Judd & co. would eventually step in to intervene.

**  Grounds for debate, I'm sure. One could argue for some generalized theoretical overlap; but it's be a tenuous case, at best. Plus I doubt most of the first-gen Minimalists would ever have been so generous in extending the courtesy. They were a narrowly-focused bunch, and could often be arse-gratingly pedantic about the whole enterprise, as well.

14 April 2014

Asynchronous Interlude

Had somehow missed this previously. Looks like Domino reissued it on an anthology a few years ago, in the wake -- one would guess -- of the accolades that (rightfully) swarmed around Comicopera.

Falling somewhere in the quarter-century span between the soundtrack for vintage things like this and it's revival by these fellows, you can't help but figure that these sounds were anything other than bafflingly retardaire (if not off-putting abrasive, ugly) in 1982. And bearing "Solar Flares Burn For You" in mind, one wonders: How many times did Wyatt provide scores over the years? Enough to make up a "Music for Films" collection? Doubtful.

13 April 2014

The Cloude of Unhearyng

(Or: A series of random and incomplete late-night thoughts prompted by revisiting the music of Harry Partch for the first time in nearly two decades.)

[...]   Firstly, I recognized the architecture within within the first frame, because I immediately felt a twinge of homesickness. Which was odd, because despite two decades spent in Chicago, I never heard any mention of Partch ever having lived or worked there. I associated him exclusively with the West Coast, assumed he might have spent some time on the East Coast, but could never imagine him having reason to venture inland.

[...]   The story’s been told, by David Toop and others, about how the composer Claude Debussy encountered Indonesian gamelan music at a Parisian international expo in 1889. He was enchanted by it, having – lazing about on an adjacent grassy space, having dozed off at some point in the performance, awaking a long time later to hear the same music going on with little variation, for hours on end. It apparently gave him some sort of epiphany, about other types of music – “all-night” musics that were infinitely open and modular and had a logical and purpose all their own, obliquely interweaving itself into one’s experience and awareness, following any of the usual Western ideas about beginning or end, progression or development or focus, etc.. He wrote about it in his journals, made notes to perhaps incorporate his impressions of this music in his future compositions, but died before ever getting round to exploring the notion. His friend and associate Erik Satie proved more ready to venture down that path.

[...]    Re, that last thought...

There’s nothing like going to something you saw advertised as a performance by a “gamelan ensemble,” and being confronted by a bunch of local white folks (townies, essentially) coming out to clang away on water kettles and marimbas. This has been known to happen. Reason being that apparently at some point in the early-mid twentieth-century, gamelan music became something of an exotic ethnomusicalogical fixation in the U.S.,and the music departments of many major universities clamored to acquire all the instruments involved in making the music. Which they still own, and would otherwise be mouldering in storage if some of them hadn’t started some sort of community-outreach programs to bring people in to learn how to play them and give the occasional free-to-the-public performance.

File under: "Not what I had in mind." I don't know who’s to blame for this, but I'm fairly sure Debussy and Satie can't be held responsible.

[...]   By the time Tortoise released their 2nd album (1996's Millions Now Living Will Never Die), people around town were already starting to talk shit about them. You know how it is – the backlash. Once the artist in question starts to get widespread recognition, everyone who claims to have gotten in on the ground floor gets all churlish and sneeringly dismissive. Perhaps this was the reason the group so quickly adopted the Never-Play-Your-Hometown policy that they'd adhere to for about a dozen years thereafter.

But in there sudden absence, they inspired their share of imitators around town. Small outfits with unconventional instrumentation and approaches. Lots of realtime dubbed-out knob-twisting and reverb-soaked sound manipulation, or with percussive elements taking the lead, often more openly structured and unresolved than what rock audience would've wanted or been conditioned to ever expect. I recall one such ensemble that had a marimba as their central instrument as seemed to be quite smitten with the music of Morton Feldman. There were enough of these types of groups around that for a while you might've wondered if the whole "post-rock" sound was going to be the next big underground thing in the city. Nothing doing, as it proved to be short-lived, with only one of two of the acts in question ever getting around to recording anything before splitting up.

Tortoise meanwhile, were making themselves scarce about town. "Last time I saw those guys," one local backlasher was recorded as saying, "They did nothing but play 'Tubular Bells' for forty minutes. Doubtlessly in reference to when the band started working with vibraphone and marimbas; a phase that seemed to be inspired more than Steve Reich than anything else, although I remember wishing at the time that they would've instead steered it more of a Partch-like direction.

08 April 2014

Habitat # 8 (Preface)

"It was during the nineteenth century that the 'building' became distinct from the 'monument,' a distinction that slowly entered architectural terminology. Monuments are characterized by their affectation or aesthetic pretension, their official or public character, and the influence exercised on their surroundings, while buildings are defined by their private function, the preoccupation with technique, their placement in a prescribed space. The architect came to be seen as an artist devoted to the construction of monuments, and there was a question of whether buildings were a part of architecture at all.

"There was a terrible loss of meaning that followed the extensive promotion of the building and the degradation of the monument. The monumental was rich from every point of view: rich with meaning, the sensible expression of richness. These meanings died over the course of the century. We may deplore the loss, but why return to the past? Negative utopia, a form of nostalgia motivated by a rejection of the contemporary, has no more value than its antithesis, technological utopia, which claims to accentuate what is new about the contemporary by focusing on a 'positive' factor, technique.

"The meaning ascribed to monuments disappeared in the wake of a revolution that had multiple aspects: political (the bourgeois democratic revolution, for which the revolution of 1789–93 provided the model), economic (industrialization and capitalism), and social (the extension of the city, the quantitative and qualitative rise of the working class). The demise of the monument and the rise of the building resulted from this series of cyclical events, from this conjunction of causes and reasons.

"The monument possessed meaning. Not only did it have meaning, it was meaning: strength and power. Those meanings have perished. The building has no meaning; the building has a signification. An enormous literature claiming to be of linguistic or semantic origin is now seen as derisively ideological for its failure to observe this elementary distinction between signification and meaning. A word has signification; a work (at the very least a succession of signs and significations, a literature, a succession of sentences) has meaning. As everyone knows, the most elementary sign, letter, syllable, phoneme has no signification until it becomes part of a larger unit, becomes part of a larger structure.

"The destruction of meaning, a democratic as well as an industrial revolution, engendered an abstract interest in significations. Paradoxically, and yet quite rationally, the promotion of the building was accompanied by a promotion of signs, words, and speech, which erupted together with the significations to which they corresponded. The power of the thing and the sign, which complement one another, replaced the ancient potencies, endowed with the ability to make themselves perceptible and acceptable through the symbols of kings, princes, and the aristocracy. This does not imply, however, that political power disappeared; it was simply transferred to an abstraction, the State.

"The complementary powers of the thing and the sign are incorporated into concrete, which is twofold in its nature, if we can still continue to employ the word: a brutal thing among things, a materialized abstraction and abstract matter. Simultaneously — synchronically, I should say — architectural discourse, highly pertinent, filled with significations, has supplanted architectural production (the production of a space rich with meaning). And the abstract and flawed signs of happiness, of beauty, proliferate among concrete cubes and rectangles."

- Henri Lefebrve, excerpt from Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment, c, 1973. Recently translated by Robert Bonanno, forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press.

07 April 2014

Koolhaas contra Greenspan

"...As such they manage to make a walk around the building feel not only unwelcoming, but surprisingly boring. CCTV's shape-shifting forms and daunting seventy-five-meter, thirteen-story cantilever make for stunning views from within and from a distance; they are least engaging from the sidewalk.

"This is a surprise, coming from the author of Delirious New York and a scholar of cities. Years ago Rem Koolhaas taught us to appreciate the richness of the culture of congestion, the tight interlocking of the public life in the street with the private lives of the skyscraper interiors. But at CCTV he trades Manhattanism for the internalized programmatic promiscuity of Bigness and the old city-killing model of the Corbusian 'towers in the park.' In a self-fulfilling prophecy, he argues against addressing the street because the political life that it once supported no longer exists. He treats the existing street as 'residue' and conceives of CCTV not as in the city, but as a city — perhaps the greatest flaw of Bigness. Bigness not only re-establishes architecture as an agent of exclusion, it negates any possibility of fostering inclusive congruency.

"In the end, CCTV is a spectacular object simultaneously rational and irrational, exuberant and withdrawn, monumental and unstable. Sadly, the one contradiction it doesn’t resolve is the choice between icon-making and city-making. Ultimately it rebrands architecture and avant-gardism in service not to the culture of congestion but rather to the society of the spectacle."

Ellen Dunham-Jones at Design Observer, from her essay "The Irrational Exuberance of Rem Koolhaas," published at the site last year and more recently reprinted in the Routledge anthology Architecture and Capitalism: 1845 to the Present. It's a fairly long read, one that may do little more than the echo the assessment of Koolhaas's recent work & career than a fair number of people formulated years ago. The essay has a narrative arc to it: From former architectural student of the radically-inclined soixant-huitarde generation, to current premier “post-critical” starchitect; with the author rehashing some of Koolhaas’s early theoretical yarns, insinuating that much of it may have been little more than the result of youthful contrarianism.

As far as the crux of the critique is concerned – it doesn’t seem like a difficult case to make. There’s a bit of an ad-hoc character to it, in which Koolhaas serves as subject due to s work being so conspicuous; but one could easily imagine a similar critique being directed toward any number of other figures. For instance, how about Zaha Hadid’s World Cup stadium in Qatar as monument to ruthlessly inhumane labor practices and the brazen corruption of FIFA? Or, similarly, Anish Kapoor’s “Orbital” Tower in London as the same, but with the IOC standing in for FIFA? Or – while we’re at it – the dwarfing, subsuming Bigness of Kapoor’s recent “Leviathan” installation as a visual metaphor the ongoing art-market bubble, and to the colossal dynamics of global finance? I suppose one go on. And if this sort of thing seems too easy, it’s because present circumstances make it so easy.

06 April 2014

Pink Guitars vs. the Negative Dialectic, II (Slight Return)

Aaron at ATTT, once again, with the followed belated (very belated) observations about Daniel Lopatins’s “Eccojams”:

“...Most of the rest of vaporware, not so much. I understand the gesture, understand the nostalgia, miss the bright techno future-vision of the capitalism of the late 1980s/early 1990s, but a lot of the music seems to get by just on the mere gesture of evoking that era. As if simply the choice to compose in a certain style were enough all by itself, with the actual composition a mere afterthought.

"To the point that the critique is almost lost and the composer has just substituted demo tracks of late 1980s synthesizers for, say, Italo disco or 1960s garage rock, as the thing to sound like with no desire to communicate anything beyond the aesthetic predilections of the composer.”

Which precisely gets at some nagging suspicion I’d had lurking in the back of my head ever since all the discussion about defining musics of the hauntological or vaporwavey pedigree – works by artists whose efforts pioneered or epitomized the micro-/sub-genres in question – was being kicked about so heartily some 5 or so years ago.

Nostalgia through a glass darkly: The loss of childhood innocence, via deferred and unrealized futures, and something something neoliberalism. I actually thought of some of it in similar ways myself, upon initial exposure. But that was my own subjective reaction, based upon an impression based in a network of association from my youth. And admittedly I’ve contributed to some of that discourse mentioned above, having written down my thoughts on it a while back.

But to Aaron’s remarks, especially the bit about “getting by just on the mere [musical] gesture of evoking an era.” Dicey business, that; especially if the era in question is exists in the minds of most listeners as a vague impression or set of clichés, on account of it falling – by dent of their age – outside their own direct experience. Musically, its mainly an example of form becoming content in the most “meta” of pomo ways, inthat it’s music referring to itself, or to its former self as it may have appeared in a previous incarnation. Music that is now looked back upon – through ironic twists of canonical filtering, an upended hierarchy in which the kitsch and marginalia of the past are given top ranking – as definitive of a previous zeitgeist. (And really, what age doesn’t/wouldn’t want to think of itself as some sort of zeitgeist?) Mere style as a sort of semantic signifier. Skrewd, woozy, deliberately degraded – a corrupted signal, at once both allusive and elusive in its suggestion of a particular point in time. A moment that long ago unmoored from its particulars, drifted well beyond the gravity of its original context. But of course we know that context is usually the first thing lost in the data stream, the news cycle, the deluge of information in an information age. In this instance the instance at how we arrived at this socio-political-economic moment, a moment in which the idea of “the future” might provoke as much anxiety as optimism: the context is a not-so-distant past that might recalled in some hazy or second-hand fashion, but can’t be reconstructed, reverse-engineered, let alone reclamated or redeemed. That’s the nature of the past – what’s done is done. And memory – be it personal or collective – is of little remedial use in such matters.

03 April 2014

Object Lesson, II

Related to the topic of the prior post...

Of course, the pricing of an LP is – in theory, at least – based on the usual supply & demand principles, with the scarcity of a near-obsolete/technologically marginal format being the prime factor in the equation. Number of copies in circulation, etcetera.

Which brings us to the Wu-Tang Clan’s upcoming album The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, of which there will be precisely one copy. A single copy, housed in a silver and nickle hand-carved box – presented as a unique objet d’art. The item will reportedly be sent on a tour of museums and galleries, where people will be allowed the one-off chance to bask in the glow of the album’s aura via headphones after paying an "entry fee," after which the thing’ll finally be put on an auction block to be sold to the highest bidder, the desired sum being in the seven-figure range.*

One might emphasize the word reportedly, because there’s a lot about the news item that suggests a media prank in the offing. If the enterprise seems a bit it preposterous, the accompanying proclamational text at the project's PR site hammers that impression home very squarely. At turns bombastic and apocalyptic, it makes a series of statements about the g music industry, all under the premise tap between popular music and “fine art” and the current state of the music industry, that the project in question would somehow tactically remedy or address anything connected with these situations. A bit droll, innit? Reuters finance contributor Felix Salmon argues that there’s the question of just much RZA and crew understand about how the artworld and its markets operate. Which would seem to be the case, but whether it’s a case worth arguing is another matter.

I’m not sure what subpercentage of the One-Percent might actually want to have the Wu as the “soundtrack of their life.” Strangely, the project is (once again, according to the website) the first in a series of such ventures by an entity calling itself – ugh – The Carmen Clandestine Experience, which purports to be "the world’s first private music service," about which there’s no further information to be found. By “private music,” one assumes this means: Music as luxury item sold to a sole deep-pocketed individuals or entities.

Perhaps the best comment I’ve read in relation to the Wu jawn is someone asking, “Maybe start a Kickstarter campaign to help ‘liberate’ the album?’

Some would argue art’s ultimate value – or its greatest redeeming value -- is the role it plays in relation to the larger culture. A similar argument could be made music in relation to the social realm. In which instance, instead of debating if RZA & co. have completely misunderstood the nature of art; the better question would be if they've instead come to misunderstand the nature of popular music. Once again, providing this isn't all a joke/publicity stunt. Perhaps some barbed commentary about the inherent socio-economic contradiction of the one-time "music from the streets” getting too entangled with the exclusivist aspirations of gated community?**

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

* Certain details lacking in all of this. For instance: Auctioned off how, or through what venue? Does the Anglo-Moroccan artist who carved the box get a cut of the auction, or was he offered a flat fee for his services? Whatever the case, I hope all the contracts are in order, and that the involved parties sought proper legal counsel in advance.

**Either that, or it's the product of smoking too much cheeb over the span of many years. Which would make the project the other type of "high-concept." You decide.

01 April 2014

Object Lesson I

I have to hold my tongue a lot. Or I try to, but I'm often sure I don't do it nearly as much as I should. I'm sure people who know me these days can predict my responses to certain things, can rely one show me to forego saying anything positive; but instead deferring to some other restaurant meal, or some other band, or selection of goods on offer or whatever -- to something better I'd eaten or cooked or seen/heard before, elsewhere. Ever the jaded city sophisticate, having lived in a heart of civilization for some two decades, and who therefore has a broader frame of reference/experience. Not that I scoff or snort dismissively or shrug it off "meh"-ingly. Most often, I just pass on saying anything that remotely sounds like any sort of a judgment call and defer to prior experiences. Which is probably even more annoying than being firmly, brusquely opinionated.*

I only mention this because this past weekend I went to a record show this past weekend; one held in my new locale. Vendors from a number of places, one have come from as far away as Detroit. His selection was much like that of the other sellers -- lots of stuff from the last days of vinyl, meaning: crates full of shitty rock and r&b from the 1980s. Dross and dregs. Not that it mattered much to me. I have enough records, thank you. Enough so, that many of them are still boxed up in storage while my wife and I inhabit a small short-lease place as settle into the new environ. So I'm not in the market in the market to compulsively buy LPs like I used to. It wasn't even my idea to go to the event, it was – for reasons I still don't fully understand – my wife's. If anything, it was a good excuse to stroll around the historic district of downtown now that some spring weather has finally begun to teasingly set in. One seller starts a conversation with me over the merits of the Temptations' Psychedelic Shack. He's a nice enough guy, and it turns out he runs a music shop in a neighboring town. From him I learn that Simeon of Silver Apples currently lives in the neighboring town in question.

Anyway: The other reason it didn’t matter was because the prices – for records both crap or worthy – were absurd. On which you can maybe blame the increasing scarcity of the format in question, as well as showroom mark-up. I walked away with a copy of the item above, which was in very good condition and priced at about 10% its usual.

Which brings me back to my starting point: If I scoff at the pricing, it's mainly because of nearly two decades of experience spent thumbing through in used record shops on the south side of Chicago. Seeing things I was used to see going for a few dollars now being slapped with asking prices ranging from $20-40. Or at least tempted to scoff, but more often snickered. Because yeah, record shops on the southside were good for certain things. You could go downtown to the Jazz Record Mart where you’d see an old copy of Grachan Moncur III’s Some Other Stuff, a copy on which the prior owner’s offspring had totally gone to town on the front cover with red and purple crayons, but which would still (apparently) command an asking price of $50. Or you could stick to the southside, where you could stood the chance of walking out with a copy of something like the below for ten dollars or less...

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