14 October 2013

Part Experiment, Part Theater

An intriguing piece in the October edition of Artforum, one that deals with a number of things I've touched on here before -- on the artistic use of obsolete media, on the auratic legacy of particular works of art, on nuclear tests in the south Pacific, and about artist Bruce Conner.

The piece in question is by filmmaker and archivist Ross Lipman, concerning his participation in the recent digital restoration of Bruce Conner's 1976 35-mm film Crossroads. The film, for those unfamiliar with it, consists of twenty-three takes of the 1946 A-bomb test at the Bikini Atoll, as documented from twenty-three different angles and vantage points. Having acquired the footage from the U.S. National Archive, Conner edited each shot into a continuouss sequence running thirty-seven minutes in duration, accompanied by soundtrack material provided by composers Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson.

In the article, Lipman details many of the technical aspects of the project, especially the technological tango and trade-offs between medium-specific characterists of each format. For instance, the usual tasdk of removing damage and errors from earlier prints. in this case coupled with efforts at retaining the optical grain of the celluloid version in a pixelated medium. Or retrofitting the soundtrack to approximate its original pre-Dolby/"sound spreading" acoustic quality. And additional "versioning" the thing in way that befits screenings in a variety of exhibition environs. Naturally, all of this follows in the course of honoring the artist's original intentions and preseving (as much as possible) the integrity of the original work. At which point, Lipman veers from technical to theoretic considerations:

"The perceptual experience of photochemical film is different than that of digital images when viewed on monitors, and yet again in projection. In our work on Crossroads, we thus utilized available color-correction tools to moderate density and contrast, optimizing the image for presentation in contemporary digital environments while simulataneously retaining its 'film' character in terms of grain structure, flicker, and image stability.

While this might worry theorists unversed in technology, such variances are again commonplace, if often misunderstood. Moreover, it is ontologically impossible to replicate one medium in another. In medium translations, interpretation is intrinsically part of the work process, whether one wishes to acknowledge it or not. To presume otherwise and relinquish human intervention in translation is to presume that the technology enabling translation is itself neutral; yet believing so is itself subjective faith. Some would argue that medium tranlations should not be undertaken, period. While I deeply medium integrity, I would temper my own vocal support of it (as I have previously)with the suggestion that although it is essential for some works, it isn't for others. And while I accept the fact that certain works must be lost to the winds of history, not all works in obsolescent media muist necessarily be forfeited. Another type of cultural loss ensues when works that might successfully survive translation are withheld from it, in adherence to a rigid Platonic ideal. Ironically, some works can be if not 'restored' then reimagined or reembodied, precisely in their transformation. The challenge in this enterprise is skillful execution."

Lipman's article deals exclusively with the film as a physical artifact and its transferal into another format. Meaning that while he provides plenty of details about things like image quality, there's nothing said about the images themselves. And what on those images, of the film’s content? The same megaton blast seen from about two dozen perspectives; the magnitude and intensity of its destructive might perhaps ungraspable for the viewer, even when aided by the expanse of a full-scale theater screen, even with the aid of all those abandoned warships anchored on the blast’s periphery to help give the viewer some sense of scale.

In an essay recently published in the journal Incite, William C. Wees discusses Crossroads as an example of what he terms the “nuclear sublime.” Yet at the same time, Wees argues, through sheer repetition – as in the case of Conner’s film – the events depicted may have long ago dissolved into mere spectacle, into an aesthetic experience. By way of illustration, he cites a journalist who, writing as early as 1946, admitted: “After four bombs, the mystery [of nuclear explosions] dissolves into a pattern. By this time, there is almost a standardization of catastrophe.” From the closing scene of Dr. Strangelove to the ironic nostalgia of the 1982 documentary Atomic Café, Wees briefly charts the course by which the nuclear mushroom clouds went from being a symbol of inchoate dread to “political kitsch.” Somewhere along the way, it still carried enough resonance to serve in an advert for LBJ’s 1964 presidential campaign; but by the time I was growing up and entering early adulthood in the latter half of the Cold War era, it was an image that operated as little more than abstract shorthand – pointing in the direction something ominous, perhaps, but largely a signifier that had drained of impact through gratuitous overuse.

I’m reminded, once again, of a passage from Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld; a passage set in 1974 in which a pair of the novel's protagonists -- aspiring artist Klara Sax and her friend Miles -- end up at a social event being held in the Manhattan loft of a mutual friend who happens to be a video artist. Part of the evening's festivities involve the screening of the artist's latest piece -- a display consisting of over a hundred TV screens of various sizes, over which a bootleg version of the Zapruder film asynchronously plays, looped ad infinitum. The shock and horror the viewers first experience at viewing the film (long withheld from unedited public viewing) soon wanes, and eventually the film becomes a type of background decor as some of the attendees grow inattentive, smoke weed, make out, discuss dinner plans, and the like.

“She knew she’d hear from Miles at dinner about the secret manipulation of history, or attempts at such, or how the experts could not seem to produce a clear print of the movie, or whatever. But the movie in fact was powerfully open, it was glary and artless and completely steeped in being what it was, in being film. It carried a kind of inner life, something unconnected to the things we call phenomena. The footage seemed to advance some argument about the nature of film itself. ...This was death that seemed to rise from the steamy debris of the deep mind, it came from some night of the mind, there was some trick of film emulsion that showed the ghost of consciousness. Or so she thought to wonder. She thought to wonder if this home movie was some crude living likeness of the mind’s own technology, the sort of death plot that runs in the mind, because it seemed so familiar, the footage did – it seemed a thing we might see, not see but know, a model of the nights when we are intimate with our own dying.”

Admittedly, this passage is an example of a theme that links a number of DeLillo's novels -- that of the discrepancy of cultural memory as recalled and recorded. Of the gulf between the ways in which particular cultural-defining events and historical momentum that follows in their wake -- the residuum or echoes, as it were -- shapes individual daily lives, perspective, and the limited, compact ways in which these events are represented (and re-represented) as a form of abbreviated and abstracted counter-memory.

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04 October 2013

"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

Looks like it's time for a round of musical conspiracy theories...

First, from the Guardian, Kevin Shields claims that the '90s Britpop craze may've been partially fueled by state machinations. Naturally, some lulz stack up in the comments section.

Relatedly, Luke Turner at The Quietus attempts to argue that if music over the past 2 decades or so has seemed a bit aesthetically anemic or insignificant or chronically retrograde, it's because of a hegemony of a Boomer-era mythos that's perpetually sucking all of the "cultural oxygen" out of the room.

03 October 2013

When We Were Real

Eh. Maybe I was wrong. Or only slightly off. Perhaps it is a subtrend, after all -- the matter of curatorial re-enactment. I say this after reading about an exhibition which recently wound down at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, a 50-year anniversary commemorative "Reproduction" of the 1963 art event Leben mit Pop – eine Demonstration für den kapitalistischen Realismus, as originally organized and staged by four young and as-yet-known artists: Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Konrad Lueg, and Manfred Kuttner.

But in some respects, the Kunsthalle affair wasn’t a literalist attempt at restaging the original event. For one, the reproduction was hosted by an actual museum, whereas the original was staged in a department store. Also, it doesn't strictly focus on the original event so much, but rather on those first few years that Polke, Richter & co. were associated with each other as they developed – each in his own way – the "Capitalist Realism" aesthetic that they'd chosen as their shared artistic banner. And while the artists themselves took active part in the staging of the 1963 event (a la a Fluxus-style “Happening”), I doubt anyone approached the surviving instigators about "getting the band back together," so the Kunsthalle instead mounted a number of large photographs from the occasion that graced the walls throughout. In fact, as a review in the art publication Spike has it, the curators decided to go all-in with the "reproduction" thematic trope:

"Most significantly, the works by Richter, Polke and Lueg – Polke’s Socks (1963), Richter’s Neuschwanstein Castle (1963), for example – were presented only as full-scale, photographic reproductions, mounted unassumingly on corrugated cardboard. This decision to include only reproduced works (excepting the real letters and photographs that were presented in the archival vitrines) somewhat collapsed the formal divisions between work and reception, and more significantly, demonstrated an attempt to strip these canonical paintings of aura."

As far as contemporary art is concerned, we’re still very much living under the influence of Pop; in much the same way that we’re still awash in the thrall of the material culture that inspired the movement’s first generation of artists. So much so, that Pop holds an almost monolithic presence in the cultural imagination. But between the Kunsthalle’s revisitation of Leben mit Pop and the Tate’s tribute to the 1958 This Is Tomorrow exhibition a few years ago, we’re presented with a somewhat ironic conundrum – as each of the original versions of these two exhibitions embodied two different, international responses to postwar material culture. The Independent Group’s This is Tomorrow exhibition was largely celebratory in tone. The Group’s engagement with the emergent culture of the day, via their activities at the London ICA and the resulting exhibition, were a largely noncritical – and at times enthusiastic – exploration of the transformative dynamics of “mass culture” (as well as a generational rebuke against the parochialisms of Herbert Read and his fellow directors at the Institute).*

But the four artists responsible for Leben mit Pop had a different relationship with postwar American popular culture; one which was much more ambivalent. Each wveas young enough to ha come of age in the years following World War II, in a mainland Europe shaped by the Marshall Plan – the U.S. recovery project that aimed to rebuild war-torn Europe and counter Soviet ideological influence by way of promoting its own model of postwar prosperity and democracy abroad. As Europe struggled to extract itself from the rubble and get their own industrial economies in full operation, these years saw a deluge of American products and media, all of it modeled after a middle-class lifestyle as broadcast and imported wholesale from another shore. A love/hate relationship ensued among some Europeans, one characterized by a circumspect regard toward a blinkered culture of consumerism that sometimes rubbed against the grain of traditional native values. Some would eventually begin to refer it as the “coca-colonization” of Europe.

Add to all this that Polke and Richter had both been defectors from regions of East Germany. Having been exposed to postwar European life on both sides of the Wall, the recognized that the true marketplace wasn’t so much about objects and mod cons, but ultimately one of ideas. With the shape of contemporary culture coalescing around the channels through which these ideas were communicated – through the airwaves, films, magazines, showrooms and Expo halls of late Modern society.

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*   Or, as IG co-founder Reyner Banham called it, "the marble shadow of Sir Herbert Read’s Abstract-Left-Freudian aesthetics." It might also be noted that the Group’s focus wasn’t limited to pop culture in the common sense, but extended to science and technology, as well. For this reason, the sometimes utopian optimism that characterized the IG’s discussions and activities have provoked occasional comparisons with the aesthetics of Italian Futurism earlier in the 20th century.

01 October 2013

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