29 June 2013

Secondary Action

A curious something not worth filing away in the "hauntology" drawer, but definitely engaging a set of heavily retro-/throwback aesthetics and technology…

A couple of weeks ago I couldn't help but notice a flurry of hubbub coming from the coverage of the 55th Venice Biennale, particularly that surrounding a particular work – Mathias Poledna’s installation, entitled Imitation of Life. Poledna originally hails from Vienna, and – despite the fact that he's been apparently living and working in Los Angeles for many years now – was chosen by his home country to be their primary representative artist at the Biennale's Austrian national pavilion this time around.

Upon its debut, Poledna’s work immediately became one of the more gossiped-about items at the expo. A reviewer at Art Info offers a breezy description:

"At just over three minutes long, 'Imitation of Life' should feel like a slap in the face to the hulking structure in which it sits (both literally and figuratively). But the single animated scene, which reproduces to exacting detail the process used by film studios in the late 1930s and early 1940s, is a joy. It’s simple, light (at least on the surface), heartwarming even, and then it ends leaving one wishing for more.

Content-wise, a dog [donkey] in a sailor costume trots back and forth across the screen singing a tune by Arthur Freed from the ’30s. The hook, 'I got a feelin’ you’re foolin' ...foolin’ with me,' points at both the absurdity of the Disney-esque display — production on this was run by Tony Bancroft, whose animation credits include Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast among others — and the trompe l’oeil of the medium itself. Around 30 hand-drawn and colored sketches flick past the screen each second on their 35mm spool, which along with the full orchestra commissioned to record the score, made this a massive undertaking in hours of work alone."

The screening room for Poledna's short film is housed in a temporary extension to the pavilion, designed by the Kuehn Malvezzi architecture firm. The accompanying song, “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Fooling,” was a widely popular and often-covered tune from the 1930s; attributed to a pair of noted songwriters who frequently worked with MGM Studios. For the project, Poledna had the song rerecorded, making a new version that closely adhered the style of the original. The artist also created a series of original drawings and sketches for the project, which he then had developed into the requisite series of hand-drawn cels by a crew of veteran animators.

None of which comes cheap these days; considering that certain old modes of production have become so rarefied, rapidly dwindling to a specialty that involves a shrinking pool of skills, expertise and know-how. Which is why the Poledna's in Austria had to (reportedly) summon together a generous sum to fund Imitation of Life. The money involved being part of what has fueled the baffled reception of the project. The other part being that all that funding only amounts to – by all appearances – a cartoon that runs roughly three minutes. Befuddlement ensues, with one critic finding it delightful while another one waxes incredulous. Must be some "conceptual" thing – something having to do with all that money being funneled into getting swallowed up by a few moment's worth of fluffy, gen-audiences escapist entertainment; and thus some ironic comment on the "culture industry" and all that it involves. Or something along those lines.

* * * *

Poledna’s had an interesting number of projects over the past fifteen years or so. Interesting, in that these projects reveal an evolution in the artist's working methods. First there’s the preference for analog technology – especially in his habit of eschewing video in favor of working with 16 and 35mm film. Secondly, there’s his fascination with pop culture and his choices of artifacts from the realm of entertainment, which he then uses to explore themes relating to the nature of artifice, escapism, and concept of “authenticity.” And thirdly, there’s his working methods, which involved deeper levels of cultural research with each successive project; the resulting work alluding to esoteric cultural/historical parallels or connections.

For instance, a few of his projects from recent years:

22 June 2013

Habitat, No.6

Photos by Mathieu Bernard-Reymond, from the 2010 series Phnom Penh.

19 June 2013

Stress Analysis

"I didn't design the layout of Brasilia. I just did its architecture.
And it's a place where the buildings count for a lot. The city is flat.
The horizon stretches away endlessly."
                                                                       - Oscar Niemeyer

Misc. notes on architecture

Re, the Modernist affinity for geometric simplicity, and the flat roof. Boxes with lids on them, more or less.

Granted, the flat-roofed structure has been around since time immemorial, being the direct descendent of the most rudimentary of architectural configurations, the post-and-lintel affair. Due to this lineage, one might describe it as "classic" in a sense. But perhaps only classic by default, by base necessity, since the prior mode of default mostly meant scouting out caves and the like. Post and lintel basically meaning walls and roof -- support and shelter. The rudiments.

The lintel element being -- by extension -- the flat roof. Which would become the basic structural feature thereafter, especially for buildings that served the most basic purposes -- be they domestic or institutional. Such things lack grandeur, speak in too humble of terms.

SO: The flat roof being a matter of default throughout the ages. Until the twentieth century, when High Modernism brought it back into style, made it a matter of preference. Modernism, with its guiding principle of purity and all that -- banishments of ornament and excess, form following function for the sake of improving (and aestheticizing) the built environment. That sense of purism extending to the reductivist basics of modular geometrical volumes -- permutations of the square and rectangle; the rectitude of -- as Le Corbusier would put it -- the right (i.e., 90-degree) angle.

All of that aside, there are inherent disadvantages to the flat roof, the sort that pose issues for the longevity of the building. One of course is the simple matter of water; which can collect in puddles along the plane of the roof, causing leaks which thereby incrementally shortening the integrity of the structure (not to mention adding to all sorts of laborious, expensive, and continual maintenance).

From an engineering point of view, the sloped roof has its upsides (no pun intended); mainly because it channels a lot of the gravitational taxation out towards the corners, where the corner beams could divert said forces right back down into the earth. But you lose that with a flat roof. Especially if its ceiling is low, and the structure sprawls. In which case it requires -- like the sort that covers any vast acreage (a factory, say) -- an optimum of load-bearing supports within. Basic physics, really. The more weight put upon a roof (be it the heavy accumulation of seasonal snows, a recreational deck or helipad, or the simple stacking of additional storeys), the more it needs to be reinforced from within, and extensively throughout. Stress-points have to be diffused – equally dispersed.

Such pragmatic considerations aside, there were plenty of other reasons to beat up on Modern architecture; and plenty of critics have lined up to do so in recent decades. Much of the criticism extending beyond considerations about form, focusing instead on issues of functionality. In this respect, it sometimes adopts the posture of a type of Adolf Loos-ish civic-virtues sanctimonious blowholing; which at times comes across as disingenuous, the anti-"purity" puritanism often hanging on the speaker as smartly as a second-hand suit.

At any rate, Le Corbusier is the favorite target for critics of Modern architecture; particularly his "Radiant City," which is overwhelmingly cited as the ultimate in bloodlessly "rational," dystopia-via-utopian urban planning. And yes, to look at the drawings and the model, one can't argue with that assessment. But it was never built or realized, if only because it was unbuildable and unrealizable, which is undoubtedly for the better. But there’s always Brasília, which was built and exists as an actualization of a similar plan. Like Corbu’s scheme, it's been described as inhumanly sprawling and impersonal, too aesthetically elitist and "absolute" in its grandeur. Similarly, it’s also been assailed for being too organized around the culture of roadways and the automobile; its expanses exceedingly unfriendly to pedestrian traffic and difficult to reach or navigate on foot. So while on one level – as a series of containers for administrative and bureaucratic activity – the city serves its function. But on another level, a much more logistical and symbolic level, one might argue it fails to fulfill its purpose.

Or so it’s said. Perhaps, dunno. I'm neither an architect nor an engineer, and I imagine this sort of thing is better left to those with the requisite expertise. What's more, I’ve never been to Brasília. But from appearances, the structure seems to be bearing up fairly well. Not only that, but it's still looking quite grand at the same time.

13 June 2013

Canto Maledicta

One from the "Letters of Note" category, and one particular brush that I had with such a thing...

Back in the 1990s, my wife worked in publishing. One of her gigs in Chicago was working for a scholastic press Open Court Publishing. One day while she and a co-worker were rummaging around in some cabinets trying to organize some files, they found an old, lost letter wedged in the very back of one particular drawer. It was a letter written in 1918, addressed to the then managing editor Paul Carus, who -- aside from being a noted German-American transcendenalist publisher and author in his day -- had also edited the company's journal of philosophy, The Monist. The letter was from the poet Ezra Pound, who was clearly displaced with Carus over the fate of a manuscript he'd submitted. My wife made a xerox of the thing before passing it along to be given to the Carus family.

The stationary bears the header for the London office of the literary publication The Little Review, and along its left-hand margin list the pub's contributors as: W. B. Yeats, Ford Madox Hueffer, Arthur Symons, Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce, T. S. Elliot, Lady Gregory, Arthur Waley, May Sinclair, "Jh.", Margaret Anderson (Editor), and Ezra Pound (Foreign Editor).

The text of the letter, as follows:

Carus, wallower
La Salle Ill. U.S.A


Jourdain makes some faint excuse for your continued incivility and your putrid meanness in not returning my mss. of the Fenollosa essay on the Chinese Written Character. (To be sent to J. Quinn 31 Nassau St. New York.)

Jourdain says that you are supposed to be ill. I hope you are. and what is more I hope you die of it.

In the mean time return my mss. and crawl out of the thief category, and make your peace with whatever diseased deity is provided for such baccilli as yourself.

Damn you again, and three boils for your infected liver.

yours candidly,
Ezra Pound

As it turned out, Carus was in fact gravely ill, and died of his illness some 8 months later.

11 June 2013


An old favorite from many years ago, which I frequently used as an obscure, mysterioso jawn on mixtapes (yes -- tapes) back in the late 1980s. In which case, the track always made for either an ideal pace-changer or mood-setter.

Was smitten by many aspects of it back then. The lumbering, subaquatic pacing. Its multilayered yet elusive atmospherics -- the more overt parts of it being the 'thunk' of what sounds like someone knocking over a microphone stand, the keyboards lurching at one point in a way that sounds like tape-drag. And the sound of an ambulance arriving and departing as heard from two city blocks away, heard while the last traces of a thunderstorm drip from a dozen storeys of overhead fire escapes, creating rippled in the huge oily puddles that have collected in the streets, ripples which in turn reflect the window lights and night sky overhead, the air hanging thick all around. Or maybe something else entirely, impression-wise, depending on what it might summon from one person to the next (or whatever substance might be involved, or etc.). But mainly it the bassline and the drums on the thing what got me; the methodical slowness of the two, washed down in heavy reverb in a way that suggests a roots-rocker dub aesthetic. Which is pretty curious, seeing how this one was recorded in 1967. Almost 'illbient' some two-and-a-half decades before the fact.

At any rate, can't believe that I'd completely forgotten about it somewhere along the way, some 15 years or so ago. Thanks due to Knez of Egoslavia for including it in a recent post and reminding me of it.

08 June 2013

Backpage (dog-eared)

Found on an old storage disc. The painting is one I was working on about 20 years ago; then recently out of undergrad and having just moved to Chicago. Unfinished, with hours' worth of additional modeling and detailing to be done. Unfinished because: One corner where the support stretchers were knocked askew from being mishandled during a move, water damage on another corner from where a roof leaked during heavy thunderstorms, and a streak of yellowing along one portion from where I must've mixed in too much cobalt drier while applying a wash of varnish. And also just generally cooling on the idea of the thing. Neither here nor there, really; since I think it was intended as little more than a technical exercise in the first place.

Very much in a stereotypical '80s "pomo" style.*  A bit of a sarcastic one, at that. I recall part of the idea behind it had to do with the fact that I'd always intensely hated Jean-Jacques David's The Oath of the Horatii. So I decided to address that distaste by means of quoting from the thing and doing some research about David and the painting in question. No surprise, I suppose, that I would end up in an art history program a couple years later.

06 June 2013

Return Voyage (Upon Never Having Left)

1.  WOMAD Festival, 1982, featuring 23 Skidoo (with assistance from David Tibet) and the Drummers of Burundi.
2.  23 Skidoo, "Tranquilizer I & II" Directed by Richard Heslop. (NSFW caveat)

05 June 2013


04 June 2013

Iconography, II

Some scattered, straggling thoughts; prompted by the post of last week...

The initial cold reception that greeted Guston's later work wasn't solely because of the artist's abrupt change in style. The content of the paintings likewise baffled and alarmed a number of his viewers. The recurrent motifs of disembodied feet, shoes and legs; the caricatured bulbous head with its giant peering blooshot eye, the bare lightbulbs dangling from the studio ceiling, etc. – some sort of limited, redundant and often esoteric inventory of the artist’s life, many assumed. But what of the hooded figures – Klansmen, obviously – that repeatedly populate many of the images? Hooded figures loitering about or driving around town in a car, almost always smoking cigarettes. A cryptic and controversial motif, appearing in painting after painting. A good many people found it troubling, since the images offered no clear explanation, no key for its own decoding.

Little surprise that the explanation lay in Guston’s own life. Philip Guston (née Goldstein) had been born in Montreal in 1913, the son of Ukranian Jewish immigrants, but mostly grew up in Los Angeles. This was the years following the release of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, in which nationwide membership in the Ku Klux Klan was at its highest. Guston remembered as a child seeing the Klan hold parades in the streets of Los Angeles; as well as hearing the rumors and reports of their assaults on targeted individuals and communities, their role in strike-breaking and attacks on unionists. Guston may have heard his parents talk about the pogroms that had been carried out back in their native Odessa, and at a young age came to associate the knights of the Klan with Cossacks, seeing them as an American version thereof.

At the age of eighteen, Guston had already taken up painting and had joined an L.A. chapter of the John Reed Club. At one point, Guston and some of his fellow Club members decided to create an exhibition of murals devoted to the subject of racism in America, inspired by the recent scandal surrounding the trail of the Scottsboro Boys. Guston decided to do a painting that depicted a Klan lynching, producing a number of sketches for the work in the process. When the show opened, it was promptly raided by an group of angry men (led, apparently, by members of the local American Legion) who defaced and destroyed many of the works; one reputedly using a handgun on Guston’s painting, shooting it through with several bulletholes.

* * * *

Guston’s work in the earliest stage of his career had been quite different from the Abstract Expressionist style he would explore in the years following WWII. In those early years, his work was highly figurative in orientation, often classically-referenced, intermixed with modernist influences by way of Picasso’s “neo-classicist” period and the work of Fernand Léger. During the Great Depression, Guston had – like many of his contemporaries – received some piecemeal employment for public projects through the Works Progress Administration. Much of his duties involved preparatory sketches and designs for projects that were never realized, but it was one of Guston’s murals – “Maintaining America’s Skills” – that graced the façade of the WPA Community Building at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

In 1946, a painting of Guston’s would also be included in the aborted 1946 State Department international exhibition "Advancing American Art." Intended as a Cold War PR exercise on behalf of the Truman administration, the exhibition was promptly recalled and the work sold off in the wake of a public outcry which had been stirred up in the press. Much of the controversy had been provoked by William Randolph Heart, who had rallied his publishing resources to launch a smear campaign against the show. The modernist tilt of the exhibition was labeled as an embarrassing misrepresentation of the nation's artist culture and a scandalous misuse of tax dollars.

02 June 2013

All Tomorrow's Yesterdays

Two music-related things that in recent months have amused me, provided me with more than enough chuckles. One being the extremely polarized paroxysm involved in the public reception of Random Access Memories. Which I've been able to watch with a great deal of critical distance, since I never much cared about Daft Punk. But much of the brouhaha is wound up with a recurring topic of late -- with all the discussion about moving backward vs. moving forward vs. running-in-place (or the possible moot-ation of such notions, as far as a lot of recent musical trends might suggest).

The other being this April Fool's item via Fact mag. Mildly, only slightly humorous on it's own; but tipped toward fully-unhinged silliness once all the idiocy that stacked up in the curse-strew comments section is taken into account. Well yeah...as it turned out, Boards of Canada actually did have a new album in the pipeline. And frankly I'm one (among many, I assume) who was relieved to hear that it wouldn't be called Quetzelcoatl. Which begs the question: Where did this item below fit in, except perhaps as someone's effort to extend the joke?...

So yeah, the new BoC has its promotional stream tomorrow. We'll see how it fares on arrival. As for myself: I didn't exactly take to Campfire Headphase at first, but it quickly grew on me. What have done since 2005? All I've encountered was a single track on a Warp label comp some several years ago, a track which failed to leave much of an impression on me, aside from it indication that the duo was tinkering with the idea of pushing things into slightly different sonic territory.

Timh's recent post at his own blog mirrors a number of thoughts I've had in recent months. Yes, 2013 has been -- and will continue to be, by all appearances -- a big year for Hotly-Anticipated releases. Seemed to be shaping up as such as early as last fall when Cody Chesnutt released his first album since his 2002 debut. Soon followed by news of the eminent return of D'Angelo. Neither of which, in the end, made quite the splash or has panned out the way many may've hoped for. But the market seems to have been on a steady roll of Major Releases ever since. And with the exception of a few exceptions like Vampire Weekend, a good many of them fall under the "comeback" category — coming from long-established acts who haven't released anything in at least 5-6 years. The news cycle for such stuff cast a distinct impression, one as Timh describes:

"Rather, 2013 seems to be the year of the zombie vanity project. A ouroboros that doesn't engender recreation, just reaffirmation. Everybody on that list (with a few others that have resurfaced to boot) are brands, name acts whose sudden re-materialization is accompanied by a successful flood of hype. The reaction to the music itself is almost secondary. Simply returning in and of itself reestablishes the brand, and thus pushes the act into the contemporary."

But of course, he demonstrates later in the post, there's plenty more to the picture than that; even if the things you might find that maintain your interest or keep you seeking might only be marginal or scattered moments of intrigue — the type that glimmer outside the periphery of Big Monolithic Events.

And like Timh, my own interests in following "new" music have flagged a bit in the past year. There are a number of reasons for this, with age and its attendant jadedness playing (admittedly) a small influence. But it looks like 2013 has something to offer even me, in the form of a new Boards of Canada album. Which could — of course, of course — prove to be a big disappointment. Maybe it'll sound like outtakes from the Idaho Transfer soundtrack, or maybe it'll sound like Skrillex on oxycontin. Whatever the case, I expect I'll live and continue on unwounded. Wouldn't be the first time. After all, three years ago Amon Tobin dropped ISAM and proved what I had thought impossible for the preceding 14 years -- that the guy was capable of recording and releasing a thoroughly uninteresting album. So it goes.

As far as anticipation and consumer goes, I'm partly I'm reminded of this spiel about "shaking the vending machine" syndrome from a while back. Also of an interview with Derrick May that appeared in The Wire over a decade ago, in which the interviewer asked May how he felt about Kraftwerk — specifically about their fan's displeasure at the fact that the group had built their own state-of-the-art Kling Klang Studio, and then failed release any new recordings for (at the time of writing) nearly 20 years thereafter. To which May rolled his eyes and responded, "Why — are people starving?"

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