28 July 2013

27 July 2013

How Soon is Now?

Okay, so about a year ago I was invited to contribute to the hit-parader edition above. And it looks like the thing is now due to arrive on shelves on this side of the Atlantic. It's a heavy, honking image-driven affair, fairly light on text. I was sent a list of about 110+ artist, told to choose twenty, and would eventually be assigned ten. I ended up writing 11, but two of them went astray due to various editorial complications.*

My contributions ended up being nine short essays on the artists Elmgreen & Dragset, Mark Grotjahn, Subodh Gupta, Charline von Heyl, Thomas Houseago, Ernesto Neto, David Noonan, Janaina Tschäpe, and Christopher Wool. A fair number of painters in that lot, given that the book as a whole is light on traditional media, because I'm aesthetically retardaire that way. As assignments go, it presented a number of new experiences for me. Multiple editors with varied preferences, dealing with a publishing entity where the common language is one other than one's own, trying to keep things fairly simple because – it being a trilingual edition – translators were going to be involved at some point. But the only real challenge was the format, having to keep thing compact and fairly simple. (Because, let's face it: if you regularly read this blog, you know how longwinded I can be.)

One odd thing about the whole process was how – in the course of doing research – I found myself reevaluating some of the artists I was dealing with. In a couple of instances (no names, please) it involved artists that I very much liked. But the more I scrutinized their work and thought it through in different critical contexts, I felt my interest in their work diminishing by degrees – the nagging sense that the artistic issues and concerns that drove the work were somewhat limited or slight.

But there were cases where the opposite was the case, where I was researching artists with whom I'd previously been only vaguely or passingly familiar; and in the course of delving into it further, I gained a stronger or more extensive appreciation of their work. One of these was the Scandinavian duo Elmgreen and Dragset, who made a big international splash some years ago with their "Prada Marfa" piece. Much of what I appreciate about their work is the social ideas and concerns that inform many of their projects – their darkly-humored riffs on the cultural obsessive with celebrity, on socio-economic marginalization and exclusion in these neoliberal times, and their series of "Powerless Structures" – installations that present the viewer with a variety of frustrated, anomic architectural situations.

Another was British expat Thomas Houseago, particularly the rough-hewn, precarious monstrosities of his large figural works. It's brutish and thoroughly un-ironic stuff...

In the course of together info on Houseago, a came across this long video clip, of him giving a presentation and discussion of his work at the New School a few year back. There are a lot of things he talks about that I could immediately identify with. One being the whole matter of grow up in a provincial setting (Leeds, in his case), somewhat removed from cultural stimuli, where your first brush with anything "avant-garde" occurring when you're exposed to something like hearing "I Am the Walrus" at an impressionable age. Or of being visually amazed by Darth Vader or Boba Fett as a pre-teen, and only some years later having a flash of recognition when first encountering the work of Jacob Epstein.

There's also a number of amusing moments in which Houseago talks about the intentionally traditional and retrograde character of his work. At another point in the presentation he talks of first entering art school in Amsterdam, initially having a go at being a performance artist. His decision to switch to sculpture was an unlikely one, he admits, since most sculpture at the time "looked like Iza Genzken's work," which didn't appeal him at all. Which, he argues, begs the question of artistic fashion and how things age beyond their immediate context. "For instance," he says, "Say you're talking to someone from the future and they asked you to explain what performance art was all about. What would you tell them? 'Well, it was kind of like film – except it was shitty.'"

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*  One of these had to do with Banksy. Text written, images selected, but late in the game there were (I gather) headaches with obtaining permissions for image reproduction. Enough so that the publisher decided it was more trouble than it was worth, and decided to axe the piece. (Can't say I was surprised at it turning out that way, since from the start I thought it was a bit chancey trying to include him in this sort of a book.)

23 July 2013

19 July 2013

Local Color

Interlude, vintage VHS edition...

Had the music from this (above) on an EP I bought back in 1984. From what little I knew about the source, the songs came from some program the band had done for Brit TV. Acoustic versions, one of “The Killing Moon” which didn’t do much for me; a couple of additional unplugged versions of two tunes from their debut LP that I ended up preferred to the originals; and a 7-minute long cover of "All You Need is Love" in which Ian McColluch indulges that extrapolatory thing that he sometimes did – randomly shoveling in lyrics from various old pop songs. For some reason I never thought to check Youtube to see if anyone had ever uploaded the TV production in question, until I recently stumbled across it.

From the looks of it, ITV gave the band a camera crew and an hour’s worth of airtime, probably hoping they’d devote it all to themselves and whatever there was of a Liverpool "scene" at the time. The band performed a few tunes for the thing, but what they handed back to the network was a more humble facet of their northern hometown. Mainly by way of centering it on Brian McCaffrey, a former boxer and welterweight contender back in the late ‘60s; who, having eventually lost his shot at the title, returned to Liverpool where he opened a neighborhood eatery with his wife. Fifteen years later and Brian's aged very well. He recalls the excitement of being in the ring, he talks about the things he likes and doesn’t like about running a small business; particularly how he dislikes the tough decisions of being "ruthless" that it sometimes requires, and how he’s had to cash in a couple of insurance policies to keep the place afloat. There’s also quite a few of the regulars who are given airtime, including a Vietnamese singer who sometimes provides entertainment at Brian’s, and some old geezer rambling on about god-knows-what like a stray character from a Samuel Beckett play. And when it’s time for the credits to roll at the end, you instead get a full rundown of the restaurant’s menu. It was, to my surprise, a very charmingly deferential affair.

And for thrownback bonus points, the uploader even left all the network ID bumpers and adverts intact.

* * * *

I say 'surprising' because the band had a bit of reputation at the time – mainly on account of McColloch, who was known for mouthing off to the music press. Seemed to be the common way of generating publicity for yourself back then if you were an up-and-coming act – come off all arrogant and dismissive in interviews, making absurdly bold claims for yourself. It was like a latter-day variant of the "bigger than Jesus" boast. It was a frequent source of amusement at the time.

The kings of this sort of thing around that same time was the Jesus & Mary Chain, in their noisy, feedback-wrangling early days. Notorious then for playing sets that lasted no longer than 20 minutes, claiming in an interview: "There’s no point in playing any longer than that. After that, any band – even the greatest bands – would wear out their welcome. I'm sure even the Beach Boys sucked after the first twenty minutes onstage." As it turned out, J&MC proved to be interesting for the span of exactly one album.

The Past is a Deleted Postal Code

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16 July 2013

Ease of Access

Nevermind the obvious deterministic economic factors and incentives. Can a city engender a certain culture of criminal activity by dent of its design?...

"The burglar — like the FBI agent who tracks him — is thus operating by way of a different spatial sense of how architecture should work, how one room could be connected to another, and how a building can, in a sense, be stented: engineering short circuits where mere civilians, altogether less aggressive users of the city, would never expect to find them.

This is perhaps the most extreme, and interesting, example of how ways of interpreting the city borrowed from the world of crime — both from those committing it and those preventing it — belong in the architectural curriculum. The insights offered by slicing through the complex topology of the built environment can be extraordinary, despite the fact that, or perhaps precisely because, acting upon these insights is illegal. They are, we might joke, crimes against space."

BLDGBLOG founder Geoff Manaugh writing in the latest edition of Cabinet, theorizing about the link between urban topology, architecture, and Los Angeles's former status as "bank robbery capital of the world," full article online here.

15 July 2013

Whenever I hear the word 'Culture,' I first check the Terms of Service agreement...

Despite the fact that the topic of Disney is in no way part of any recent research I'm doing, it seems to keep turning up randomly without my looking for it. So, one last item in this thematic thread, one that I came across the other day...

That being the recent UK premier of Philip Glass's latest opera, The Perfect American, which takes the legacy of Walt Disney as its subject matter. Glass composed the music and helped develop the premise. The libretto was supplied by Rudy Wurlitzer, based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Peter Stephan Jungk.

Reviews of the opera have been mixed, Citizen Kane comparisons have been a staple throughout, and there's been no shortage of discussion about the production's unflattering portrayal of the figure of Walt Disney. Glass himself has admitted that it was a project born of deep ambivalence, the decision to do it originating when he was given a copy of Jungk's book some 5 years ago by then-director of the New York City Opera Gerard Mortier, who requested that the composer develop it into a stage production. "Of course it's not a hatchet job," he recently stated by way of anticipating criticism, "Why would I spend so much time making fun of someone I don't like?...Disney was a man of his time, both in his shortcomings and what was powerful about him."

By the varying descriptions, the show sports a couple of intriguing scenes. One involving a crew of technicians wrangling to properly wire the animatronic Abraham Lincloln for the Disneyland park, with the robot coming to life to draw Disney into a debate about race relations and social equality in America. Another involves Andy Warhol appearing as Disney lay in his deathbed, the former paying tribute by telling Disney that he’d been a role model for the pop artist, proclaiming that he was "born the same year as Mickey Mouse” and that he also “has a huge army of helpers."

This last bit naturally has me thinking back to the remarks of Pierre Huyghe, which I cited in my prior post on this topic; Huyghe’s observation that “ [Warhol’s] Factory was a place where Warhol could embody the capitalist system,” in relation to how artists like Huyghe and Mathias Poledna have adopted the medium of film production in recent years. Film being a collaborative art form, and its methods – of course – mirror those of industrialized manufacturing; with its departmentalized, assembly-line systems of production. And it’s a model that’s lingered on well after the decline of the manufacturing sector and its diminuation by an emergent post-Fordist economy. In the context of The Perfect American, Glass chalks the Disney-Warhol analogy up to the persistence of the Atelier System in the artworld, the hierarchical system by which an established artist pursuing large or ambitious projects does so by overseeing a crew of assistants and apprentices in a workshop setting. Warhol probably had other sources of inspiration than Disney when setting up his Factory, but it could be argued that Koons adopted it from Warhol, with Hirst taking it from Koons. Historically, it’s not that uncommon of a practice, and it’s been around for centuries.

But enough about Disney, already. My interest in all of this has to do with broader issues concerning art's engagement with pop culture, and the critical strategies it devises or employs in doing so. Older, supposedly critically interventionist tactics look toothless and inadequate in hindsight. Say, for example, postmodernism's prior 1980s fixation for appropriation from the pop-culture (and art historical) canons. All those supposed deconstructive siphonings from the domains of advertising and entertainment amounting to little more than shadowing the visual rhetoric of the dominant culture, while at the same time perhaps capitulating to the the alleged "end of art" verdict (i.e., art's previous societal role having been subsumed by the hegemony of "mass culture" throughout the course of the 20th century). Likewise with other varied strains of "neo-pop" or "pop conceptualist" practices that soon followed in the 1990s, where all pretenses at semiotic inversion were jettisoned for a type of jaded resignation (if not outright Baudrillardian "nihilism," by some critics' reckoning).

Quoting or borrowing from the public domain purported to serve some subversive critical purpose at the time, but in the end -- no matter how playfully done -- it seems a bit feeble in many respects. As dead-end tactics go, one might be tempted to recall the words of Martin Heidegger, who, in Being and Time (and admittedly speaking of something else entirely) wrote: "Appropriation [merely] appropriates. Saying this, we say the Same in terms of the Same about the Same. To all appearances, all this says nothing."

Plus, it was so much an easier thing to do once-upon-a, back when it was less difficult to pinch and abscond with and détourn without having to lawyer-up first. Y'know, before that the borders of that "common culture" were so thoroughly and rigidly policed. Before the corporate entities that distributed and administered such stuff began claiming ever-increasing restrictive rights to exclusive ownership, rendering all free and "creative" engagement therewith likely to a cease-and-desist notice, liability to prosecution, and the threat of litigation.

* * * *

In some areas, however, pop culture isn't what it used to be; at least not in terms of it having any claim to be a "common culture" that serves as a mutually, broadly shared cache of reference points. It often seems like a quaintly anachronistic idea in the era of media atomization -- of profilerating channels, echo-chambers, sub-niches and sub-subgenres, and increasing degree of nanocasting that break down to the point of individually-tailored/-filtered content.

Film (in the form of mega-budget blockbusters, anyway) might be the only remaining form of media that still -- as Huyghe described it -- provides any remaining remnant of providing a "public space; any social or civic or communal grounds for discussion. The same can't be said of any form of pop music anymore, certainly. And if you read the recent interview with filmmaker Adam Curtis in FACT mag, you run smack into a "twas it ever thus" assessment along those same lines. In speaking of his recent live-event collab with Massive Attack, Everything is Going According to Plan, recently staged at the Manchester International Festival. In the interview, Curtis raises the topic of regurgitative retrophilic tendencies in recent music; of pop music's incessant mining of the styles and gestures -- so radical, allegedly, in their original in situ context -- of prior zeitgeists:
"Pop music might not be the radical thing we think it is. It might be very good and very exciting and I can dance to it and mope to it, but actually it just keeps on reworking the past. ...If you continually go back into the past then by definition you can never ever imagine a world that has not existed before. I think true radicalism...comes from the idea of saying this is a world that has never existed before, come with me to it.

...[But] music may actually be dying at the very moment it is everywhere. There comes a moment in any culture where something becomes so ubiquitous and part of everything that it loses its identity. It will remain here to be useful but it won’t take us anywhere or tell us any stories. It won’t die in the sense of not being here but in the sense of not having a meaning beyond itself. It will just be entertainment. What will happen is that something else we haven’t imagined yet will come in from the margins that tell us a story that unites us."
If that weren't bleak and dystopic enough, Curtis sets it up by flatly stating earlier in the interview:
"My argument is that we live in a non-progressive world where increasingly we have a culture of management, not just in politics, but everywhere. Modern culture is very much part of this progress. What it’s saying is: 'stay in the past and listen to the music of the past'."

Or as Simon recently put it, was the idea of pop music ever being anything akin to a socially transformative phenomenon little more than a myth rooted in Boomer "generational over-estimation"?

Full interview with Adam Curtis here.

14 July 2013


Vocalities: Mimesis vs alterity vs mimesis edition. The second one I came across about 5-6 ago; ironically right around the time Dave Tompkins was putting the finishing touches on his epic history of the vocoder, How to Wreck a Nice Beach. The first is very recent, and I think she takes requests.

08 July 2013

Production Values

It occurred to me in the course of writing the prior post on Mathias Poledna’s Imitation of Life that Disney’s Snow White has turned up in the work of another significant artist in recent years. That being in a pair of pieces by artist Pierre Huyghe; starting with his Snow White Lucie of 1997. The piece focuses on Lucie Dolène, the chantuese who had provided the voice for the character of Snow White in the dubbed French version of the film, and who decades later sued Disney studios for unpaid royalties. In Huyghe's piece, Dolène is seen sitting in an empty soundstage studio singing “Someday My Prince Will Come” while the story of her lawsuit appears at the bottom of the screen in subtitles.

Like Poledna’s piece, Snow White Lucie deals with the realities that reside behind the curtain of the entertainment industry’s machinations of artifice and make-believe. At the same time, it deals with another theme that occurs repeatedly throughout Huyghe’s work – that of ownership, copyright, and how it pertains to the common culture. This theme echoes throughout Huyghe’s sprawling 2006 installation Celebration Park, in which Snow White (along with other cultural entities) would again be invoked, although this time in name-only form, as one of a number of neon disclaimers...

One of Huyghe’s best-known works is the 2000 split-screen video installation The Third Memory. The work is based on the famous 1972 incident in which John Wojtowicz attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan branch in Brooklyn, which resulted in a hostage situation and a 14-hour standoff with police. The incident, of course, inspired the 1975 Sidney Lumet movie Dog Day Afternoon, which started Al Pacino in the role of Wojtowicz.

For The Third Memory, Huyghe has Wojtowicz himself revisit the sequence of events of that August day in 1972, offering a matter-of-fact walkthrough of the drama as he remembers them. The staging of this reenactment is done with the aid of a mock-up set of the bank, extras standing in as hostages and the like, and various props. Scenes from Lumet’s dramatization sometimes appear on one of the flanking screens, paralleling Wojtowicz’s own narrative by way of comparison and contrast.

With The Third Memory, Huyghe conflates Wojtowicz’s own lived experiences with that of a theatrical, adapted narrative; in the process allowing Wojtowicz the opportunity to “reclaim” his story from the realm of the mediated spectacle. It’s likely that Huyghe had originally developed the idea for the work from the fact that Wojtowicz had complained to the New York Times about how his story had been represented by Hollywood, and had requested that the paper offer him the chance to set the record straight. An arts editor from the Times responded:
"I'm very sorry to say no to this after all of our correspondence, but this article just won't work for us. The problem is that I just don't believe you have profoundly come to grips with the motives for your crime, and the complex relationship between art and reality in this instance."
There is also the matter of how Huyghe’s presents and stages the reenactment, particularly in how it follows the format set by late-‘90s TV shows like America’s Most Wanted. The chief difference being that Huyghe allows the perpetrator to present an alternate narrative to the “based on a true story”/”ripped from the headlines” premise.

Also worth underscoring the way that The Third Memory riffs off of its cinematic precursor, by way of a double-edged pun on the idea of a "captive audience." In Dog Day Afternoon, director Lumet buttressed the pathos of the story by portraying Wojtowicz as a conflicted yet sympathetic character. His rapport with his hostages (as Lumet chose to tell the story) leads to a "Stockholm Syndrome" scenario; which is extended to the TV viewers and members of the surrounding Brooklyn community, many of whom come to regard Wojtowicz as something of a folk-heroic figure as the drama unfolds. As critic David Joselit has pointed out, the story had already – via print and broadcast sources – gone through numerous layers of mediated reframing before Lumet adapted it to film.


03 July 2013

Public Service Announcements

Yeah, like almost airybody else these days, I have a tumblr.

Sorry if that makes me some sort of sell-out. But hey, if you haven't gathered by now, I'm as visuocentric as I am text-oriented.

02 July 2013


File under: Unapologetic formalist interlude
Crossfile under: Somewhere between "sick" and sickly - there be monsters
Related topics: Never could fit this on a mixtape; eff you referral spambots
See also: ...No, forget it, nevermind...you wouldn't understand anyway.

01 July 2013


Yeah, perhaps more thematically appropriate for my prior blog than this one. But whatever. Some dudes had style. And the Black Belt Jones OST used to routinely serve as the talkover music for one of my former radio shows.

All of which reminds me that I started a summer mixtape to post, but let it languish. Maybe its time I got around to polishing it off.

(And right, I realize this is a very content-light post. But hey, I just got done reading through the better portion of the latest edition of the e-flux journal, devoted to the speculative topic of "Accelerationist Aesthetics," and I still got nothin'.)

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