Daniel Barenboim & West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: Hommage à Boulez

by Adam Rothbarth
 

“On the dial of Imitation
The Pendulum casts its load of granite in reverse.”

- René Char, used in Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître


In György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique (1962), 100 metronomes are set to different speeds and wound to their maximum extent, unleashing a wall of clicking chaos for about six minutes. For most of the piece, particular meters and individual clicks are not discernible from one another; yet, as metronomes begin to drop out, and the remaining ones become distinguishable as individual voices, the work’s periodicity comes into focus, albeit a focus in which the ear’s lens struggles to keep things in frame for more than a second or two. Poème symphonique is not completely indeterminate, as ten performers each control groups of ten metronomes, with a conductor overseeing the whole venture. But the way the meters fall in the work, almost as in a game of jacks, there is the sense that the treatment of temporality and meter is largely aleatoric, which is to say that the primary factor in the flow of time in the piece is chance on the part of the technology and performers, not reason embedded in the work by the composer.

Toward the end of a performance of Poème symphonique there are moments of brilliant phasing that one would think must have made an impression on Steve Reich, who would begin premiering his own concentrated studies on this phenomenon only a few years later. The key to understanding Ligeti’s piece is to recognize that meter becomes discernible only when the music is relieved of 99 voices: coherent time is emancipated via the last metronome standing. Only when a single voice is heard is anything intelligible; anything more, and distinct time can no longer be perceived. This expresses a historical condition in which time itself is alienated. When all become one, when the collective evolves into a single revolutionary voice (or, in the case of Poème symphonique, devolves) emancipation becomes possible.

The release of Hommage à Boulez came at the same moment as the unveiling of the Pierre Boulez Saal, a new chamber music venue in Berlin that opened on March 4th. The building was designed by architect Frank Gehry, whose attractive preliminary sketch for the Saal appears as the cover art for the album. As the primary image for this release, the drawing makes the viewer/listener feel like it bears some philosophical meaning, that it is a cypher to understanding the music that lies within. The circle is not the hall itself—is was concept that needed to be interpreted and actualized, much like the recordings collected for the album, which are substantive aesthetic objects whose social meaning requires unveiling.

In a sense, the total serialism and periodicity of Boulez embodied in this album live in a similar distress: the distress of struggling to reconcile with, and move beyond, both Schoenberg and contemporary ambient music. Boulez’s rage toward Schoenberg is well known: while many felt (and continue to feel) that the composer’s atonality and eventual serialism were offensive and violent—and of course they were—Boulez felt that the composer did not go nearly far enough. His response was to start composing with total serialism, a compositional technique that used matrices to serialize not only pitch groupings and melodies, but all aspects of music, from dynamics and rhythm to timbre and meter. This way, the music would appear to have no human elements whatsoever, and would, ostensibly, be even more free. Boulez and others from the post-war generation, such as Stockhausen and Cage, wanted their works to rebel against form by grasping nothing from outside themselves, to sound as if they determined their own being exclusively from within.

The question is whether these works are self-critical in their own rebellion against established forms and their limitations, or whether they dogmatically adhered to Schoenbeg’s categories in their quest for the obliteration of the subject in service of musical free will. Dérive 2 (1988-2006/2009) is one of the centerpieces of this release, taking up almost the entire first disc with its 49 minute runtime. Dedicated to Elliott Carter on his 80th birthday, the work exhibits Boulez’s research into periodicity, the primary temporal technique used by Ligeti in Poème symphonique. The album’s liner notes read: “Contemplating Carter, Ligeti, and Nancarrow, Boulez here concerned himself with periodicity at many levels—indeed, at so many levels that the elementary phenomena of pulsation are often blurred. Paralleling the smaller pieces, the work proceeds like a river through different states, sometimes dashing through rapids, sometimes entering pools of harmonic reflection.”

At first listen, Dérive 2 sounds most like Webern, with its pointillism and its brilliant flashes of color and dissonance. It is challenging to tell whether the piece utilizes Klangfarbenmelodie—a technique favored by the expressionists in which melodies are split up across various instruments/lines—because it is difficult to tell what actually constitutes melody in this work. In an aural sense, Dérive 2 is almost anarchic, abiding nothing external, its formal law becoming simply lawlessness. Atonality is very easy to listen to today, for the shock of dissonance and the friction of being confronted with abnormal time in music have all but vanished from the listening experience. The formal order to Dérive 2, its qualities as a composition, are lost to the ear, appearing only as flourishes of sound splashing against one another. As Adorno put it, one could compose in one’s head a Webern or Schoenberg piece while listening to it; to do so with something like this is virtually impossible, leaving the listener to experience Dérive 2 more or less as an ambient work. The irony of a total organization of music is that, to the ear, it simply appears as a monolithic, atonal wash.

It is important to remember that the successes and failures of Pierre Boulez are not the album itself. Hommage à Boulez comprises some truly excellent readings by Boulez’s longtime friend and colleague, conductor Daniel Barenboim, who is here supported by his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. For this recording of Boulez’s 1955 masterwork Le marteau sans maître, the orchestra was led by the conductor himself in Berlin in 2010, giving a vivid reading that sounds here much more abrasive and modern than Dérive 2, itself getting a crystalline, workhorse-level performance from Barenboim. The two-disc package is handsome, its simple and elegant yellow, white, and black palette signifying its avant-garde quality to prospective listeners. In the end, however, these postmodern compositions have the same utility as the sketch on the cover of the album: they point towards that which is yet to be done. Like the sketch, they seem to conceal something crucial, whimsical, and perhaps even mystical. Maybe this is why when the listener opens album’s front cover, she is confronted with a smiling portrait of Boulez, who almost never smiled for photos.

Album cover for Hommage à Boulez.

 

Poème Symphonique by György Ligeti.

 

Dérive 2 by Pierre Boulez.

Sound Art: A Historical Miscarriage?

by Bret Schneider

 

In an interview discussing mediums, art historian Harry Cooper noted that painters have always been jealous of musicians because there is such a rich store of technical systems in music, whereas painters only have a pathetic color wheel. Assessing Modernism, Greenberg observed that modernist painting’s success took music as its inspiration, as it possessed a seemingly innate ability to express something both primal and reasoned. However, musical knowledge has advanced so far today as to be nearly impossible to discuss without technical expertise, highly specialized jargon, and second-hand information. Nevertheless, even to the uninitiated, some of the most exciting work being done today falls under the heading ‘sound art’. Yet ‘sound art’ as such has offered little in the way of gripping theoretical substance: it eschews its own medium specificity even as it requires it. Institutionally, it has proven itself a pet fad of contemporary art—so says a founder of sound art himself, Max Neuhaus. One of the first to use sound as a medium in contemporary art exhibitions in the 70s, Neuhaus thought the categorization ‘sound art’ was miserable: after all, we don’t call Anthony Caro a ‘steel artist’ but a sculptor. There are periodic flares of interest in sound art, from top ten lists to comprehensive sound art exhibitions, and yet no one is really certain what this term means, and what the whole thing is about. It seems to exist out of institutional obligation or even charity. It is often a category for leftovers: if a visual artist utilizes sound but it isn’t listenable as music, it is lumped into ‘sound art’, and left alone to fester in that grey area. It is the grey area itself that people are often attracted to, and so the half-baked attempts to build a theory of sound is as necessary as it is undesirable.

The differentiation from music is the most problematic and interesting specter haunting sound art, and has come to be a defining characteristic of sound art. A differentiation began to take form around the 1960s, even though it wasn’t exactly theorized as a ‘sound art’. Certainly, there were the Futurists who used sound in non-musical, ‘arty’ ways, but it wasn’t thought of as an autonomous artistic movement for ‘sound art’, and falls into the category of the many tendentious historical revisionists who “muckrake” art history (to borrow Hobsbawm’s term). Sound art as such originated as a rebellion against the modern theme of time. If modernist music was primarily a time-based medium par excellence, coming to fruition in the leisure free-time of the avant-garde, sound art became primarily about space in post-modernism. Witness the interests of LaMonte Young’s Dream House, Maryanne Amacher’s Music for Sound Joined Rooms, Pauline Oliveros’ recordings in cisterns, the efflorescence of field recordings e.g. Jakob Kierkegaard, Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room, and so on and so on. In retrospect, sound art appears as a movement to cure people of the affliction of time. Whereas modern music developed to the point of raising the awareness of time--Adorno noted that Varese’s compositions often sounded like alarms sounding--sound art has been divided by contradiction: it is on the one hand about therapizing techniques to deal with the modern feeling that there are always alarms going off, while on the other it aims to carry the torch of avant-gardism that once thought to express the feeling of alarm itself. Sound art is a reaction, but also the leftover of music—it is music outside itself, music in exile. Because of this, contemporary sound art usually takes the form of a requiem for modernist music today, but a requiem without a community, or within a broader enlightenment community of disenchantment. See for instance Jennie C. Jones’ or Janet Cardiff’s melancholic installations that dissect rather than reproduce music tradition. But it remains to be seen if sound art is an important or meaningless leftover; if it is mere vestige, like a wisdom tooth that only causes pain, or like T-Rex’s useless arm.

Sound art is only now beginning to show it’s foundational form: in its own moment in the 60s the move towards a spatially oriented sound art was impulsive, it’s theories lacking. It was, in many ways, a reaction against temporal organization by presuming an aesthetic in which no thought developed in time, but only sensation—a sensory aesthetic—could thrive. Ever since, sound art has been successful on it’s own limited, self-undermining terms. As a result, its success is ambivalent: it has proved formulaic in its recourse to vulgar, scientistic ideas of ‘pure sound’ and postmodernism’s latent phenomenological orientations that are now becoming archaic. It's reliance on a purely philosophical assumption about sensation has become a tautology—sound sounds like sound! This means it is also ideological where it attempts to be purely experiential. Sound art’s ideological, historically specific makeup contradicts its claims to a transhistorical phenomenology of sound. But above all, it's abandonment of a concept of development—listeners walk into a seemingly infinite sound space usually—has meant that it's content to reaffirm the mysterious invention of ‘sound’ in the enlightenment age. That this impasse is very real does not contradict the fact that, on the other hand, sound art has cultivated a highly sensible ear for minutiae, and a sharpening of the listening faculty. What this faculty may be good for, however, is hard to say. Because of this, sound art often partakes in the therapeutic, self-enrichment turn of culture more generally--yoga for the ears. What good is it, after all, to be able to listen better? In a world in which art is expected to do more than self-enrichment, the question must be asked.

The common denominator of all sound art as such has become acoustics, and sensory ‘experience’. The way vibrations resonate in a room, the technical means of recording and producing sounds, the psychoacoustics of the ear interacting with the brain, and so forth. Sound art exhibitions so often are illustrations of biological or acoustic phenomena, the kind of demonstrations that one would find in a science museum (e.g. the interest in Chladni patterns). Recently, the anti-intellectualism of sound art’s acoustic, spatial, and therapeutic turn has been challenged, for instance by Seth Kim-Cohen’s ‘non-cochlear’ theory of sound art. Recognizing the impasse, Kim-Cohen follows a contemporary art first principle in Duchamp’s ‘non-retinal’ visual art, with the practical goal being the overcoming of sensorially reductive sound. Nevertheless, it’s pendulum swing to contemporary art’s conceptualist basis has not cultivated more truly conceptual or provocative sound art, but evinces the late academicization of sound art.

Sound art today can be seen as either science demonstrations, or a return to, and exposure of, the foundational ideas of a sonic art. The latter is more interesting, and is probably what is most at stake with the ‘modular revolution’, the practice where there may be an acute ‘art of sound’ as a leftover of music. The past decade has seen a huge industrial boom in modular synthesis, influenced by the post-techno academic turn that thoroughly muckraked (and continues to muckrake) mid-century electronic music labs, expressing a curiosity for foundational principles. This curiosity has exceeded academic research, and broken out into a historical practice mediated by industry: an attempt to refeel a moment. It’s hard to say exactly why it is one of the most interesting things happening today, but it may have something simply to do with the great amount of productive energy invested in the practice globally. I.e., it isn’t about the ‘modularity’ of electronic music per se because this industriousness could have conceivably been invested into other areas, such as tracker programs, flute production, etc. Why this, why now? may be important. Electricity has been known for thousands of years, and electronics as we know it since the 19th century (arguably even more innovative over a century ago). So why in music now, and why is it electronic sound art that aspires to the acute expression of our moment?

The general reactions to Kim-Cohen’s ‘noncochlear’ sound art point in some direction, because on the one hand he was articulating the dullness of acoustical science demonstrations, but on the other his critics were very suspicious of the literary tendency, or the prioritization of the conceptual over the sensory: a false, and postmodern dichotomy. One gets the sense that so many electronic musicians  have pursued what might be considered a sound art practice because there is something ‘scientific’ about it: circuits and mathematical functions don’t lie (or bullshit) the way contemporary art does, but building generative sound compositions—sui generis—is nevertheless a creative and expressive endeavor, far afield from science or math. It’s really about connecting things and constructing. Our closest analogy might be Russian Constructivism, which attempted to radicalize the organization of space, and imagined new visual concepts and tools towards aesthetic ends. It was influenced by mathematical and geometric concepts, but was also very distinct from that history. Or perhaps another analogy would be the open-endedness of connecting things children experience via toys like Kinex or Legos (It’s not nothing that Lissitsky made children’s books). Likewise, electronic musicians have slowly been developing a palette of organizational tools that is highly specific to time and pitch, but also quite playful on its own terms. Such tools are already social and conceptual in nature in their attempt to redeem infantile intelligence, as if adulthood in our society has proven to be a wrong turn. But play also remains an ideal or a task. In our current society play becomes, at least in part, social conditioning for technological domination. It's not really just 'play'. When one thinks of 'play', Schiller comes less to mind than Google's adult playgrounds that are calculated to increase productivity. 'Play' is also a demand or a compulsion, something artists are assigned to do as a distraction from reality. Sound artists today may have more conflicted, and less positive feelings about play. As such, sound artists often have an aesthetic of busywork.

In other words, so many more people perceive something more socially real in electronic fart noises and infantile bleeps than the dinner table prattle of contemporary art’s cultural turn. Sound art today has become more interested in the forms of the sonic sensorium, which is at base also conceptual. A point of comparison might be the early 00s work of the Line or Raster Noton labels to the sound art tape music scene evinced by Phinery. The former was often mediated via sound installations, whereas the latter’s mediation lies more in performance or home listening--it can be considered more concisely ‘formal’. There has been a shift back towards time-based listening. The sound art groundwork laid in the early 00s has allowed a more expressive music to flourish.

Not to mention that industry has a way of pushing productive material forward, for better or worse. It takes industry to create the conditions whereby an aesthetic of sound can emerge. But this polarization of ‘sensory’ and ‘conceptual’ is itself symptomatic: what modern aesthetic philosophers like Hegel and Benjamin advanced was the ‘sensibility of the idea’, as well as the idea of ‘nonsensuous similarity’ respectively. Meaning, these two poles would not be antagonistic, but capable of being unified. The idea would gain substance and practical traction that points beyond itself because it is mediated--here by medium specificity--and not simply a demonstration of itself. It can be said that the current polarization evidences the lack of both ideas and sensory experience. Where sound art is literary, it is in its truly onomatopoetic origins: its ability to imitate, however abstractly. It is not nothing that arty music is experimental in that it has developed a formal palette of primitive utterances: pew, zap, bleep, pft, etc. This is, at best, how it is described, and this in turn is how it reproduces itself.

Likewise, the most interesting claim sound art today might make would be the refeeling of Nietzsche’s ideas of modern art more generally: a synthesis (pun intended!) of science and art. The experimental electronic turn in sound art shows in part a sense of Enlightenment discovery that is in sharp contrast to the many Romantic ideals endemic of contemporary art. The expressive qualities--for instance the sonic humor in Autechre’s music--derive in part from the fact that science, like art, is still enthralled in the growing pains of enlightenment crawling out of prehistory. One thinks of the way Michael Fried analyzes the portrayals of absorption into the discovery of soap bubbles: scientific but in a deranged and playful sort of way. One attraction to modular synthesis and likeminded experimentalism is in the hard empirical nature of electricity as a medium. Electricity in modern practice is very simply about directing current. Even the most dynamic of modular electronic music composition is about voltage being modified in time, and channeled into different directions. But the electrical impulse, despite its scientific aspect, also reaches back into the primalness of experience: Philip Sherburne’s critique of Surgeon’s From Farthest Known Objects as a sort of ‘waveform transmission’ of electrical energy unleashed by the pandora’s box of modernity gets at the relationship of the primordial and the modern. In a sound art like this, the cosmic telos of civilization reaching back to the big bang is aestheticized in our present moment.

To the extent that this can be considered sound art today, it embodies a shift back into the domain of time and history, and very minute decisions on a micro-scale as well as enormous epochal sound masses. As with traditional synthesis, the voltages actual vie with each other (perhaps analogously to the way streams of water converge) to find the path of least resistance. The setting up of systems where voltages are in conflict to find a path forward is a compositional attempt to remove the artist’s hand, and force the mysterious nature of electricity to run its own course as it reacts to a stress imparted by the creative, unnatural concept of bourgeois expression. It is, in layman words, a way of forcing nature’s hand.

Such is the synthetic program staked by a great deal of electronic musicians, but perhaps exemplified by Hecker’s early Sun Pandemonium. While on the one hand it is a basic implementation of Xenakian quasi-scientific concepts, such basic and highly alienated calculations when applied in a deranged society seem to unlock some sort of primordial beast: it is as if the Pandora’s Box of sound was opened and primal auditory spectres have come wailing forth. The wager of sound art is that music tradition in Bourgeois society has kept this box closed rather than prying it open.

 

The early 20th century saw composers sequencing permutations of all sound material, and so it was possible for e.g. Stockhausen to write an explicit study of time in music (How Time Passes). However, with the spatial turn in critical music towards sound art (e.g. multi-channel spatialization, sound installation etc.), time appears to have passed, if time is also understood as a plaything of modernization. The interest of time as an organizational tool has been truncated, while inevitably being the continuing raison d’etre for anything that organizes sound. The attempt to escape the temporal constraints of music (Amacher) haven’t succeeded in abolishing time, but rather extended the meaning of time. What results in the spatial turn is the longing for time-structures, overdetermined arrangements, and the  hyper-organization of sound. Time appears as a contradiction: to have already passed, creating static or crystallized objects, as well as being an open-ended dynamic process. This condition then also suffers from a repetition or iteration complex: the tendency towards loops and cycle systems is an allegory for a historical moment in which time is paramount. It is the aestheticization of a complex with music history. It is the overdevelopment of music that has pushed it into the clinical white cube, where it is exposed rather than lived. Where it is melancholic and mourning for music, it is actually not mourning for the end of music, as one might expect, but rather the meaningless persistence of music, or the surplus of music. It is mourning for music’s forced enrollment in a barbaric society that knows little other than the weaponization of culture.

Such historical consciousness is the practice of Jennie C. Jones, for instance, when she lines galleries with acoustic absorber panels. Material exists to undermine itself in that it is used to absorb and nullify what has become of (bourgeois) music. It is a self-canceling aesthetic, and creates auditory black holes (or squares), so to speak, in the pathological cultural turn of music. Jones has borrowed from Fred Moten’s concept of the ‘break’, which might be seen as a reconceptualization of the bourgeois form of caesura, albeit today within the broader overdevelopment of culture. Jones has expressed a deep ambivalence about the supposed freedom of music, stating that with black American experience (as essence of American experience) music is all that we have, and yet not enough. “Music is everywhere--it’s drowning us from the street, we listen to it on our phones--so I’m trying to offer something else that’s an alternative to our usual consumption of sound”. Later theories of sound art had proposed that an art of sound would be important because there is so much ambient noise. But this has always been insufficient: the ‘noise’ is nothing other than bourgeois culture overripe and decaying. Sound art here is a moment of pause, a break from culture from within culture. In other words, culture is rounded out as a self-negating phenomenon of our current society. It is a practice like this which poses a challenge to the mass industrialization of e.g. electronic music or jazz, or the attempt to turn sound art into a kitsch workshop complete with all the tools and gadgets one might think up; a sort of deranged Bauhaus. Such tools will add up to very little besides contributing to the current white noise of culture--a white noise that is motivated by the cultural turn’s interest in the antiquated romantic myth that art has the power to move mountains. But this form of sound art is also an outpouring of the overdevelopment of culture as well: it wouldn’t exist without the current general overripeness of art, and in a different historical moment. The Appolonian, ‘scientific’ side of sound art takes such romance to task, and the Dionysian aspect is not the Bacchanalian orgy but rather the mournful requiem in the Dionysian myth when the god parades into the village in silence.

Even in the modular music realm, the more work that is done leads to a more thoroughly empty aesthetic, not a complete one. More completely empty, perhaps. And even in countless online videos of modular synth jungles, the maximalist vision undermines itself: the thousands of sounds are scanned in rapid succession, as if they are being tested and immediately discarded. By analogy, the pulsating intricacies are like thickets of dotted lines, drawing just as much attention to the emptiness in between, and becoming ever more elliptical.  Sound art is just as much about non-experience. William Basinski once described his tape loops as something like burning comets of junk hurtling throughout the night sky, to which one might add ‘the night sky of humanist music history’. That is, 'music' is untouchable refuse that seems to take a life of its own. As long as there is unimportant music everywhere, there will be a sound art that questions and seeks to aestheticize music’s inessential contribution to society. But it is also the case that an art of sound may only finer tune the more petty, unimportant qualities of the music industry, serving as little more than an avant-garde of a cultural lack.

 

 

Cover image: Bernhard Leitner


 

 

A good intro film on the not-sound-artist sound- artist Max Neuhaus, written and edited by Adel Souto. adelsouto.com

 

Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009): Living sound, for "Sound-joined Rooms" series (1980). 

Maryanne Amacher's Music For Sound-Joined Rooms series utilized architecture to experiment with a unique acoustic form of 'structure-borne sound'.

 

Jacob Kierkegaard is well regarded for his field recordings at sites such as Chernobyl, but his Labyrinthitis is also influenced by Maryanne Amacher's experiments with the psychoacoustic phenomenon of otoacoustic emissions, wherein the human ear (cochlea) not only receives, but transmits sound.

http://sb.kud.li/touchmusic33 Official stream from Touch. Distributed by Kudos Records.

 
Carsten Nicolai's Milch features experiments with Chladni patterns.

Carsten Nicolai's Milch features experiments with Chladni patterns.

 

Richard Chartier's Incidence exemplified a late 90s/00s interest in austere, digital minimalism, implementing tones on the threshold of perception. 

Label: Raster-Noton ‎- r-n 75 Format: CD Country: Germany Released: Nov 2006 

 
El Lissitsky's children's book, About Two Squares

El Lissitsky's children's book, About Two Squares

 

Surgeon isn't technically a sound artist, but some of his more experimental post-techno productions make use of sound art sensibilities.

 

Hecker's Sun Pandemonium (2003) was a watershed for unleashing the potential of granular synthesis, an electronic music technique theorized by Iannis Xenakis decades earlier.

 

Autechre's Sublimit, from Untilted (2005) is sometimes noted for expressing an uncanny humorous element, while also being a masterful percussive composition.

 
Installation shot of Jennie C. Jones's paintings using acoustic absorber panels.

Installation shot of Jennie C. Jones's paintings using acoustic absorber panels.

 
Ben Vida, cover of Damaged Particulates, released on Shelter Press. Like some of the artist's other works, DP features fragments of onomatopoeisis, utilizing both the voice and electronics.  http://shelter-press.org/ben-vida-damaged-particulates-sp075/

Ben Vida, cover of Damaged Particulates, released on Shelter Press. Like some of the artist's other works, DP features fragments of onomatopoeisis, utilizing both the voice and electronics. 

http://shelter-press.org/ben-vida-damaged-particulates-sp075/

"A Revolutionary Impulse" @ MoMA

by Allison Hewitt Ward

The Museum of Modern Art’s recent survey of Russian arts from 1912-1935, “A Revolutionary Impulse: Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde,” was an exhibition haunted by whispers of revolution. It is to the curators’ credit that the exhibition did not shy away from the political realities that defined this period, but they did little to enlighten the lay viewer of their logic and development, leaving the works only partially tethered to the very revolutionary impulse from which the show took its name. To be fair, such a complex pedagogical task is likely beyond the scope of an art exhibition, a form forced to cater to broad capacities of knowledge and fleeting attentions. “A Revolutionary Impulse” is owed great credit on its own terms: it is an excellently presented collection spanning painting, film, photography and design. Its incomplete character and demand for expanded consideration is not a failure, but a mark of its success. 

Of the staggering number of objects on display, most striking was filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s 1925 collaboration with Rodchenko, Kino-Pravda no.21, a propaganda film (the title translates to cinema-truth) tracking the failing health, death and funeral of Lenin. Black and white graphics contributed by Rodchenko depicting, without comment, the medical statistics of the ailing revolutionary leader created a palpable sense of worry as they edge, at an excruciatingly slow pace, towards the result we all know already: Lenin’s death in 1924. The film showed the massive long-faced procession of mourners at his funeral, dedicating portrait shots and name plates to party leaders: a hunched over, tear stricken Clara Zetkin, a somber Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin steadfastly looking ahead. The latter was utterly chilling—a glimpse of a future yet unknown to the filmmakers but known all too well today. Standing, in 2017, in the American Museum of Modern Art in a moment of utter political confusion, the tragedy of this moment was cutting. Could the mourners have possibly known that they had witnessed both the beginning and the end of a moment of tremendous historical potential? Did Vertov and Rodchenko realize that in their montage of party leaders it would be Stalin who would take power? Did they know that, after the crippling defeat of the German Left the year prior, 1924 would mark a closing and not an opening of history?

These questions are utterly irrelevant in the study of history and the critique of art. What Vertov, Rodchenko and that procession of sullen revolutionaries knew is of little importance. But there have been few moments in which a work of art confronted me so forcefully, so starkly drew the contours of the boundaries between this ambivalent present and an exhausted past. In 1925 the film was melancholic but hopeful; today it is deeply tragic, a bitter reminder of an unfulfilled promise. At the centennial of 1917 the distance of a century looms nearly insurmountable. 

If the art of the Russian Avant-Garde has a timeless quality, it is because of its unique historical origin. Never before or since have artists operated under the thrall of three societies—the crumbling czarist Russia, the dynamic bourgeois west, and the advancing spectre of socialism— so different. It expresses all three but belongs to none.

Nowhere is this strange confluence more apparent than in the career of Malevich, whose work featured strongly in the exhibition. A display of paintings and drawings by the artist served as a reminder of Malevich’s transcendent formal quality. Small works, some no larger than 6 inches across compelled the eye with careful and economical use of forms in space. Here we see attempts to render the mark in its most irreducible state, to discover what, in the last instance turns a plane into a work of art. Yet while these formal interrogations align Malevich’s work with the best of the European avant-gardes, his own writings betray the backwardness at work. The spiritual concepts in which he framed his output in his own writing belong more to rural and mystical Russia than industrial France.

The trouble with “Revolutionary Impulse” is that it retroactively applied the 1917 revolution to art produced before it, an application strengthened by a film documenting the abdication of the czar at the entrance to the exhibition. The problem is compounded by the fact that works spanning the mid teens to early twenties often appeared side by side. The revolutionary vigor at work in “Revolutionary Impulse” in fact preceded the Russian Revolution, and was markedly bourgeois in character: it both embraced and critiqued the bourgeois society from which it emerged. In other words, it was not the 1917 Revolution that made the Russian Avant-Garde revolutionary, it was its own internal development. In a set of analytical charts made between 1924 and 1927 for presentation in western Europe, Malevich explicitly situates his own work and that of his peers as the inheritors of the history of bourgeois art, analyzing a development of forms from renaissance sculpture through Cubism and Futurism towards Suprematism. (It should be noted that many of the leading figures of the Russian Avant-Garde had honed their skills in Paris.) Through the immanent critique of existing forms he proposed a new art that would transcend them. By laying bare and taking apart the structural underpinnings of art itself Malevich and his peers both destroyed and reproduced them, simultaneously negating and confirming the world as it was, pointing slyly to a world that might be. What we see in the show is not art produced in response to, or support of revolution, but a rare and vibrant instance in which an advanced bourgeois avant-garde was swept up in a socialist revolution, directing their practice to its service.

The more confused paintings by Varvara Stepsnova (Figure, 1921) and Ivan Puni (Flight of Forms, 1919) indicate that the development of the existing Avant-Garde in revolutionary Russia was quite uneven, and underscores the pre-revolutionary bourgeois maturity of Malevich. Fortunately, these two underwhelming pictures appeared to be the exception. The advanced transformation of the Avant-Garde in the wake of the revolution appears to belong to Lissitzky, who in 1921, with Malevich and others, founded one of what would be many publications bolstered by enthusiastic manifestos, UNOVOIS, which sought to merge art and life. In its wake would come Lissitzky’s PROUNS and Rodchenko’s Left Front of the Arts. In these disseminated publications we see a rare instance of an avant-garde actually acting as vanguard, that is, the leading force in aesthetic development. The spatial forms utilized by these documents (and additionally by displayed instances of theater design) followed the contributions of Suprematism and Constructivism. Subsequent developments brought these strategies to publications and propaganda of all kind. A formal strategy developed through bourgeois self-criticism was transformed into a design kit for revolutionary propaganda. It sacrificed some of its vitality in this transition from internal reflection to external communication. The architectural lines and blocks of color that floated gracefully at Lissitzky’s command are all but suspended in Gustav Klutsis’s 1927 graphic Memorial to Fallen Leaders, and finally anaesthetized on a ceramic dining set from late in the decade.

“Revolutionary Impulse” addressed its contents as broadly historical phenomena, rather than internally medium-specific developments or singular biographies. The fact that this approach is surprising in 2017, when our vocabulary for the non-medium-specific (post-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, trans-disciplinary) already greatly exceeds the field’s potential, was itself surprising, but nonetheless welcome. In addition to tracing the development of radical form into propaganda design, it adeptly included the subsequent major development of post-revolutionary art—the cinematic turn—by approaching it through time rather than form.

By situating the move into cinema and photography historically (wall text cited Lenin in support of the form) the exhibition allowed the viewer to make the formal connections between the works on paper of Malevich, Lissitzky etc., and the cinematic works himself: a welcome freedom. The captivating cut of a worker folding cigarette packets in Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera (1929) cannot help but evoke the spatial exercises of Lissitzky: a close-up of crisscrossing chords on a switchboard takes on the character of a constructivist drawing. From scenes of daily work Vertov teases out profoundly beautiful images whose spatial arrangements appear in alignment with the painterly sections of the avant-garde. Labor, the film suggests, is itself a form of aesthetic production. And conversely, aesthetic production is a form of labor, a thesis Vertov defends with regular cuts to images of the camera lens and pseudonymous man with the movie camera. The cigarette factory, switchboard and mine workers depicted are, like the man behind the camera, engaged in the productive manipulation of things.

While The Man With the Movie Camera may be the best representative of a revolutionary art, it came too late, more than a year after the expulsion of Trotsky from the Soviet Union and the beginning of the end of the grand experiment. The fact is that the revolutionary impulse in art does not hew so cleanly to revolutionary politics. It pushes ahead and pulls back. It expresses possibilities after their moment has passed or before they can be recognized. Vertov’s proposal—the collapse of aesthetic production into production as such through the elevation of production to the aesthetic—dangles in the stale air of the present. It is a question subsequent avant-gardes attempted to answer, failing to account for the fact that the proposal itself was meant to be dissolved, transformed in a society where the very fact of reified production has withered away.

Does this mean that there are no openings for a revolutionary art of the present? Quite the opposite. “A Revolutionary Impulse” clearly demonstrates that that the whispers of radical art speak to us even when the shouts of a socialist workers’ revolution are far afield. 

Still from Kino-Pravda no.21, Image courtesy of UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Still from Kino-Pravda no.21, Image courtesy of UCLA Film and Television Archive.

 
Works by Malevich. Image courtesy of MoMA.

Works by Malevich. Image courtesy of MoMA.

 
Stepsnova (left) and Puni. Image Courtesy of MoMA.

Stepsnova (left) and Puni. Image Courtesy of MoMA.

Installation view of "Revolutionary Impulse." Image courtesy of MoMA.

Installation view of "Revolutionary Impulse." Image courtesy of MoMA.

Ambivalence

by Adam Rothbarth

 

“Man has an inclination to associate with others, because in society he feels himself to be more than man, i.e., as more than the developed form of his natural capacities. But he also has a strong propensity to isolate himself from others, because he finds in himself at the same time the unsocial characteristic of wishing to have everything go according to his own wish. . . . to achieve a rank among his fellows whom he cannot tolerate but from whom he cannot withdraw.” — Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View

 

The thought of writing an essay on my ambivalence is fundamentally paradoxical. If I take myself not to care about art at a certain level, how must I approach the task of thinking critically about my estrangement from it? From where do I muster the energy to be objective? Or, to put it another way, how do I care that I don’t care? To answer the question, I will do what all art critics should in part strive to do: I must critique not only art, but my own self.

What does it mean to care about art? First, I must separate my caring about art into two categories: intellectual care and emotional care. Emotionally, I inherit from society a subjective deficit that art claims to strive to fill. This claim is second nature today, one of the pillars of the culture industry: art is meaningful, art is fulfilling, art makes life worth living. And yet since I know that none of these things are really true, I am fundamentally thrown—on an emotional level—into perpetual crisis regarding my relationship to art. It can do nothing to quench the unquenchable thirst that the impossibility of Spiritual fulfillment evokes. It is a deep desire, and one that can only be relieved by the negation of my own negation.

Just as man is driven into society to seek a form of liberty that does not exist in nature, finding himself unfulfilled equally (so far) by solitude and community, man is so driven towards art, finding himself in a similar contradiction. Thus, man enters into a relationship with aesthetic production that, to invoke the epigraph to this essay, he cannot tolerate, but from which he cannot withdraw.

So what is the relationship between art and potential negation? This is perhaps where one’s care can begin to blossom, their minority acting as the soil in which their critical positions may flourish. Today man does not question the categories of art or the culture industry, but, rather, seeks exponentially refined ways of understanding them meta-critically in his particular aesthetic moment. But this pursuit presupposes that man must care about art. However, if man can only care about what he can lose, and the culture industry is a permanent institution of capital, how can man gain the degree of abstraction necessary to care, or to even think critically about it? How can man care about something that is unfulfilling and permanent? In a sense he cannot, and yet the paradox remains. This answer produces a more important one, though: if man acknowledges that he cannot care about particular art-works, he MUST care about art as a category, intellectually. His ambivalence masks a desire so powerful that it can only appear in a distorted, contradictory form.

This relationship with art drives man, whether he recognizes it or not, towards an actually meaningful and particular critique of art. He must care about the art that does not fulfill his mind today so that he may be fulfilled by his own social activity tomorrow.

Man must care about art because it is a practice in which he can both critique his ambivalence and envision a world without it. For the artist, this means creation; for the critical theorist and the art critic, it means interpretation. In many ways, art is no longer able to criticize empirical reality in a meaningful way. It has lost sight of the dissonance of modernism, and could today be said to more or less simply embody the perplexity of contemporary social life. Without revolutionary politics, there is no real art, and without critical theory and art criticism, there is no real interpretation. In this void, we are left with two mirrors facing each other: ambivalent art-works on one side that task a confused world with deciphering their meaning on the other.

I do not know what Trump’s presidency will bring, nor do I really know what it will mean for art, though I entertain my private speculations. I do know that, empirically, his victory has been simultaneously the most exciting event we’ve experienced at Caesura during our year of publication, and also a force powerful enough to halt publication for five months. Nota bene: we have not reached a collective understanding of the meaning of our hiatus.

Perhaps we wanted to wait to see what would be there when the dust settled. Maybe we were too overwhelmed by the art world’s response. I know that part of my own hesitation to publish involved a desire for a resuscitated Left. But it didn’t show, we didn’t write, and the world continues to turn. There remains no real Left, and as the many responses to Trump have shown, there is very little, if any, real art. This is why Caesura is as important as ever, as one of the last bastions for actual critique, if I may be so bold as to suggest that we have attempted to provide this.

To paraphrase Adorno, the realm of art is cold. I feel it now more than ever, and if you are reading this, you probably do as well. I cannot speak for the other editors at Caesura, nor those at other publications, but I know that for myself, I must force myself to continue to care about art today so that I may be fulfilled by my life tomorrow. And this means acknowledging my ambivalence. Only then can I be free to actually think about art.

 

Simone Leigh: The Waiting Room @ The New Museum

by Allison Hewitt Ward

If Simone Leigh’s “The Waiting Room” succeeds as a work of art, it is entirely contrary to the artist’s expressed intentions. The work, which is currently on display at the New Museum, consists primarily of a room filled with a grid of meditation cushions awaiting use in care workshops. These sessions run a gamut of activities and topics, including meditation, acupuncture, massage, “Black Lives Matter” and “Afrocentricity,” which continue the artist’s efforts to address problems of racism and sexism. Others are scheduled throughout the run of the show (closing September 18). Sandbags are installed around the periphery, a visual clue to the show’s political intentions, and an adjacent room houses a pharmacy medicinal herbs attractively displayed in large glass jars.

In an accompanying broadsheet, distributed for free in the exhibition space, the show’s organizers (curator Johanna Burton, community programs manager Shaun Leonardo and director of education Emily Mello) claim for it two precedents. The first is the artist’s “Free People’s Medical Clinic,” which is documented in video at the exhibition’s rear. More community service than work of art, the “Medical Clinic” seems only to qualify as the latter by virtue of Leigh’s credentials as an artist. The merits of the clinic—the provision of healthcare and wellness services at no cost—can hardly be called into doubt. But the fact that what is essentially a charity clinic, an institution with a long practical history in the United States, becomes, in Leigh’s hands, an artwork betrays both the impotence of action and the uncertainty of art today. In “The Waiting Room” this problem is handily set aside by the project’s placement within the institution and its codification under the generously vague heading of socially engaged art.

Second, the organizers cite the museum’s pioneering display of the art of the AIDS crisis in 1987’s “Let the Record Show….” This engagement with “health justice” serves as the institutional precedent for “The Waiting Room.” They ask:


If a larger vision for change within political structures, to ensure that lives and health matters, cannot, or should not, be relegated to government alone, nor solely to activists whose outcry is too often met with being told to be patient and pragmatic, what might be the role of artists and art institutions?


By asking this question, they offer an affirmative answer to a more important one: do artists and art institutions have a direct role to play in political structures? In other words, they suggest that art institutions have a practical role to play in the reproduction of everyday life; a role necessitated by rigid conventional politics that appear impervious to the demands of real human needs. In “The Waiting Room” Leigh attempts to meet these needs with a hodgepodge of alternative medicine, spirituality and choreographed self-determination.

The marriage of identity politics and self-care is not terribly new. The logic goes that oppressed persons need to make special efforts to care for themselves and for each other. An assertion follows that such acts are themselves political, even radical—the museum calls this an “act of disobedience.” Of course, this is just another variant of the neoliberal cult of self-improvement, in which the individual is expected to acclimate to the order of things, attaining happiness and increased productivity in the process. Collective action and sweeping transformation are effectively anesthetized by mindfulness. A similar movement is seen in art: if aesthetics once sought to shock our senses, to undermine the status quo, much of the art of today hopes only to dull the pain.

The placement of activism in the museum context is also not novel. But until the late 20th century, this phenomenon took the form of artists’ antagonistic stances toward the institution. Even when their actions were sanctioned by museums, as in Hans Haacke’s MoMA Poll, artists did their best to undermine their hosts. The best work of this vein laid bare the financial, political and ideological structures that tied art museums to a broader social discourse. And it had enough respect for its viewer to do no more—to let him or her connect the dots.

By the 1990s the inheritors of these practices had become far less ambivalent. The troubled notion that arose in the 1960s that museums should and ought to be relevant was deployed with little interrogation. Alongside curators and museum directors, artist began to conceive of these institutions as community centers rather than antagonists (for example, Deller, Gillick, Tiravanija et al). At stake was the presence—or absence—of community, the possibility of exchange and the ideal of openness. Yet these works, often participatory, continued to interrogate the category of aesthetics. Even when they appeared rational and pragmatic, they were deployed irrationally.

“The Waiting Room” is remarkable for its lack of concern with its institutional home and its disregard for questions of aesthetics. Unlike the political art of the 1960s, it has no interest in interrogating the New Museum. And unlike the relational aesthetics artists (from whose contributions socially engaged art emerged), its gestures aim to be pragmatic. They are conceived as means (treatment) to an end (better health, and ultimately the elimination of sexism and racism). In this dual break with its forefathers, “The Waiting Room” makes apparent a reality that these prior efforts obscured: when real political action appears impossible, the present conditions all too intractable, political desires find a comfortable home in immured museum galleries. There, the distinction between art and politics is collapsed and desire can be expressed in an ineffective way. Responsibility and possibility are indefinitely suspended.

Thus while “The Waiting Room” purports to be a political agent, it truly is a museum piece. The desire, even the necessity, it seeks to express is left to do nothing more than collect dust. Guided meditations, acupuncture and free massage will never create political consciousness or effect qualitative change. In the museum context these gestures neatly crystalize an inability to do so.

It is when we realize the obvious—that no policy will be changed and no sickness will be cured by what transpires in this museum—that the piece succeeds in spite of itself. Rather than the anesthetization of action (its ultimate pragmatic function), it appears as the aestheticization of a form of inaction, made available to the senses as an object of critique. 

Cover Image: "Simone Leigh: The Waiting Room," 2016 from New Museum events website.

Cover Image: "Simone Leigh: The Waiting Room," 2016 from New Museum events website.

 
 
 
A care session on medicinal herbs offered in Simone Leigh's "The Waiting Room."

A care session on medicinal herbs offered in Simone Leigh's "The Waiting Room."

 
 
 
Aimee Meredith Cox leads an Afrocentering workshop as part of Simone Leigh's "The Waiting Room."

Aimee Meredith Cox leads an Afrocentering workshop as part of Simone Leigh's "The Waiting Room."

 
Hans Haacke, MoMA Poll, 1970.

Hans Haacke, MoMA Poll, 1970.

Against the "Critical Criticism" of Culture: Towards an Aesthetics of Blindness

by Jensen Suther
 

"As soon as I relate myself to something objective, it ceases to exist for me, and so I am poised above an immense void, conjuring up shapes and destroying them..."

I.

In one of the sardonic gestures that would come to define his polemical style, Marx subtitled his 1844 attack on the Young Hegelians Kritik der kritischen Kritik, or “Critique of Critical Criticism.” He intended for this witticism to reveal a short circuit in their form of social and political theory: criticism is exponentially augmented, to a second “critical” power, when it elevates its activity and standpoint above actual practical change. “The act of transforming society,” Marx writes, “is reduced to the cerebral activity of Critical Criticism.” In the case of the Young Hegelians, this entailed the impossible demand that the masses conform to the principles of criticism, by changing their thinking (and not their practices); in the case of Bret Schneider’s recent response, critical criticism becomes the equally impossible demand that culture be made to progress, that criticism itself “[raise] musicians to a superior historical consciousness of the still enigmatic means by which sound is organized.” In other words, from the standpoint of critical cultural criticism, the music of Oneohtrix Point Never fails when it succumbs to “true” art’s opposite, kitsch. By the same token, the criticism that, as if touching a leper, risks contamination merely by addressing it—never mind that Schneider, hereafter the Critic, led the way to the colony—fails “to keep culture moving via taking up a leadership role in cultural production.”

Critical cultural criticism thus tasks itself with the transformation of “the way culture is produced.” As the vanguard of the avant-garde, it expects its own critical activity to change the way that painters paint, that composers compose, that writers write. Leadership is always in need of a lodestar, and the idea of advanced technique is apparently the sole light that shines in this dark sky. But when Walter Benjamin’s important observation that the art of true artists teaches other artists is adapted as a norm for criticism, the critic is effectively reduced to little more than a tastemaker, charged with singling out for praise the most technically advanced works of contemporary art. It comes as no surprise, then, when the Critic tells us that his distaste for Garden of Delete is indeed a matter of preference: “I personally prefer the ‘technical’ avant-garde.” Those works are preferred that contribute most to “the development of aesthetic knowledge,” which the Critic seems to understand in the popular terms of the sharing economy as a growing database of techniques. On this view, the possibility of artistic progress is treated as a given and it is conflated, moreover, with the idea of technical advance: in order to “keep culture moving,” criticism drags art by the hair into the future, distinguishing the good from the bad in accord with the criterion of the technically superior.

Yet it is precisely with this implicit definition of criticism as a kind of banausic score-keeping that the Critic gives away the game. Several of Adorno’s comments in the draft introduction to Aesthetic Theory bear on the issue directly: “What currently passes for technical criteria in no way facilitates judgment on the level of artistic achievement and most often relegates it to the obsolete category of taste.” One can thus see how the Critic’s sheepishly proclaimed “preference” for the “technical” avant-garde—a false distinction to begin with—is an abdication of critical thought necessitated by the irresolvable contradiction at the heart of his own position: the criterion of technical advance itself must be superseded by a deeper criterion, lest what constitutes an authentic advance remain indiscernible. Since advances in technique are, it might be said, a necessary but not sufficient condition of artistic progress, in the absence of a more fundamental criterion of such progress, thinking must beg off and give way to the unbinding judgments of taste. Preference replaces insight into what is aesthetically—and thus socially—true or false.

The irony, then, is that the Critic’s own work falls on the wrong side of the supremely undialectical distinction he himself draws, between a criticism that occupies itself with “good or interesting” works, and one that treats works that are “critical.” What was intended as an indictment of my supposed “kitsch criticism” becomes the unconscious self-indictment of the Critic himself, as “interest” becomes the key to his notion of judgment: “In a world of growing amateur cultural production, people more and more listen to the things that have direct interest [my emphasis] to what they themselves make…This alone fosters the conditions by which avant-gardism can flourish.” Contrary to what the Critic thinks, however, the quality of a work, the judgment as to “good or bad,” is decided by whether or not it is critical; contrary to his one-sided understanding of “caesura,” “the quality of works of art is measured […] according to the degree in which antagonisms are formed within [them],” as Adorno remarked in a roundtable discussion with Lucien Goldmann in 1968—well after the heyday of historical modernism, nota bene. But the most significant symptom of the Critic’s reliance on taste lies in his failure to grasp that the critical character of successful works can only be understood on the basis of their truth content, which requires interpretation of form and technique, rather than the smug affirmation of the technical opposition of advanced works to the kitsch products of the culture industry. This failure finds expression in his accusation that my critique “ends up being a literary critique of music and not a musical critique of music.” The rigid separation of the “literary,” or questions of meaning, from the “musical,” or questions of technique, defines, therefore, the one-sided approach of the Critic, which, as has become clear, relies ultimately on taste-based criteria to tell artists what to do and what not to.

While it is true that criticism, as Adorno argues, does have an “art-practical” function in that its “insight into the historical situation […] converges with binding implications for production,” criticism is not a mere appendage to production but is rather to be regarded as a “form in [its] own right” through which “the development of artworks […] is fulfilled.” What role can criticism possibly play in completing works of art, or “fulfilling” them? For Adorno, the artwork only truly comes into its own through the critical interpretation that, in going beyond the artistic intentions objectified in the work, distinguishes its truth from its untruth. Because artists do not get the final say on what their works mean, because their social significance changes over time, waning in one instance while bursting with new meaning in the next, the task of a work’s completion falls to the critic.

It is now apparent that, in the context of this debate, the notion of “truth content,” which I briefly mentioned in my original response, requires greater elaboration. Society leaves its traces in the details of the work of art, through the process of its production. This gives us a clue concerning the answer to the question: How does one decide whether an artistic decision is correct or incorrect? The “work-immanent” task of determining “the truth or untruth of a perception, the consequence or lameness of a thought, the coherence or incoherence of a structure, the substantiality or emptiness of a figure of speech,” requires a “work-transcendent” moment in which the critic relates “the knowledge of society as a totality … to the claim inherent in the specific object that it be apprehended as such.” To understand specific works of art on their own terms, one must go beyond them, to the society that appears “external,” but that in truth inheres in the smallest aesthetic details. Here are several other typical statements by Adorno:

“Art and society converge in the artwork’s content, not in anything external to it.”

“The aim of [criticism] is to provide not social justification but a theory of society by virtue of the explication of what is aesthetically right and wrong at the heart of art objects.”

“Artworks are objects whose truth cannot be thought except as that of their interior. Imitation [by way of interpretation] is the path that leads to this interior.”

Notice that in each of these lines Adorno is preoccupied with the notion of the “interior” of the work of art. While I have argued that the interior of the work is only truly accessible through the lens of society, it is important to keep in mind that the interior itself is a work’s unique language, the distinctive stylization of paint in a painting, say, or the rhetorical figures that constitute the formal substance of a poem. But this is a deceptively simple, “two-step” approach to the complex problem of interpretation, since the requisite “turn to the social” itself necessitates, according to Adorno, philosophical categories: “The truth content of an artwork requires philosophy. It is only in this truth content that philosophy converges with art or extinguishes itself in it.” It is hard to imagine what the Critic would make of this claim, especially in light of his remark concerning what he took to be extraneous, art-alien invocations of Kant in my response. It is certainly true that philosophy is often misused by critics, who artificially project its categories onto works of art. But it is also true that no genuinely dialectical approach to art can dispense with philosophy, which is for Adorno synonymous with critical theory, or, said all too quickly, the historically specific theory of the self-contradiction of society under capitalism. What the Critic referred to as the “very interesting” (but, for him, irrelevant) discussion of puberty in my piece was precisely a philosophical attempt to articulate the “meaning” of the lyrical and musical content of Garden of Delete in critical-theoretical terms: in terms of social contradiction. While the Critic accuses me of “Heideggerian phenomenology”—a misplaced epithet if there ever was one—I was attempting to articulate, however hastily or inadequately, the historical form of subjectivity to which the record gives voice. If the historical Heidegger invoked by the Critic is thought to “ontologize” the anxiety, isolation, and despair that characterize the experience of the modern subject, then my own procedure does the opposite: it critiques the abject subject of late capitalism from the standpoint of its possible fulfillment.

II.

My strategic defense of Oneohtrix Point Never against the one-sided approach of critical criticism was never intended to serve as an unconditional endorsement. The song “Animals” is an instructive example of artistic misfire that also helps to illustrate the foregoing points. It attempts to protest alienation in the digital age by way of a minor progression and hackneyed lyrics sung by the pitch-shifted voice present on most tracks, but here in an unusual “plangent” mode. Yet nearly every other moment on Garden of Delete is dedicated to the demonstration of the impossibility of the kind of subjective expression “Animals” takes for granted. It becomes clear that the record’s critical edge is dulled the instant society becomes its explicit object and it ceases to counterbalance the norms of popular songwriting with the skepsis of vaporwave. If society is made to foot the bill for this aesthetic error, the immaturity and petulance of its lyrics, along with the trite melancholy of its sound, appear as symptoms of capitulation to the socially necessary illusion of the substantiality of the subject and of the object of its protest, social forces of domination that are, in truth, because of their abstractness, beyond the individual’s grasp.

If the task of critique is to separate truth from untruth, then the album as a whole should be grasped in terms of the general aim or ambition its failings contradict. In the Critic’s response, much is made of OPN’s repetition of surrealism, which is grasped as a symptom of the project’s failure: “With the total degeneration of all things surreal into pathological affectation … what is needed above all today is music that aims to raise musical comprehension to a higher and more active level.” Surrealism strove to defamiliarize everyday objects so as to restore to their experience a feeling of childlike wonder, which renewed in turn an aura of potential surrounding the hollowed-out remains of culture. It relied on the commodity fetish to achieve its effect: cultural trash formerly imbued with nostalgia and longing came back to life under the surrealist’s gaze, as the “true object of love,” in Adorno’s words. But unlike surrealism, Garden of Delete does not seek to resuscitate lifeless objects. In the late phase of capitalism, the fetish character of the commodity has dissipated: the predominance of finance capital under neoliberalism has entailed the solidification of the capital fetish, which is the illusion of the absence of the system that marks its ultimate triumph. Under the rule of the capital fetish, all culture is kitsch and the form of fulfillment it promises is purely culinary, no longer admitting of the reflective and imaginative experience the original fetish, paradoxically, at least claimed to make possible. This was reflected in the illusion of the autonomy of culture, whose passing vaporwave cynically celebrates. As the ironic recognition of the degraded status of culture, vaporwave constitutes the farcical repetition of surrealism.

Yet Garden of Delete negates and fulfills the genre it exemplifies. It transforms irony into insight by adopting the capital fetish as a principle of form: through-composition and montage become the contradictory means by which the impossibility of surrealism is demonstrated. The potential in trash the surrealists aimed to educe is here denied, and instead, the total degradation of culture becomes a cryptogram for its realization. Garden of Delete strives to accomplish the impossible, to “make kitsch elegant,” as I wrote in my response, in the sense that it attempts to give form to formlessness itself, to what is now beyond redemption. The childhood naïveté that surrealism hoped to restore for an instant in the improbable context of abandoned commodities is supplanted on Garden of Delete by a prepubescent dread of bodily change. The capital fetish produces the subject’s consciousness of itself as its body, but as no more than its body. By figuring the effect of the capital fetish on consciousness of the body, Garden of Delete shows us that the illusion of self-identity under late capitalism reflects a reversion to mere animality. A new state of nature is reflected in the illusion of the system’s absence: the true self-identity that Marx called “species being,” humanity come into its own, is mocked in the pseudo-identity of second nature as the mere repetition of first nature. Identity politics takes this pseudo-identity as its starting point: you are your race, gender, sexual orientation, you are your nationality, but you are not what you do. On Garden of Delete, such pseudo-identity is explicitly represented as the return to bare nature. The body without freedom is nothing but pus.

III.

In the fourth chapter of The Holy Family, Marx undertakes a curious defense of “love,” which critical criticism had rejected as a threat to the soul of man. Love, according to Marx, requires that one take another as one’s object, an act condemned by critical criticism as “selfish.” By overcoming love, Marx cunningly argues, critical criticism becomes the “tranquility of knowledge”: nothing can disturb it, because it denies that there is any object outside itself. The Critic denies that he ignores the object, and his denial takes the form of an either/or: either he acknowledges the object by way of “a more socially focused analysis,” or he acknowledges it through appreciation of its technical achievement and contribution to the “development of aesthetic knowledge.” This separation of what I called above the work-immanent and work-transcendent moments of criticism, however, effectively means that the object is denied: an either/or criticism either reduces its object to its social origin and function, or “slips into the disreputable role of the messenger who brings the latest news” from the front, while failing to meaningfully penetrate its object either socially or technically.

Yet implicit in Marx’s critique of critical criticism is a conception of true critique as love of its object. But in what sense can critique “love” its object? If, in the absence of an object, critical criticism “self-immolates” in the demonstration of its own vacuity, true critique must see itself in its other, starting from and grounding itself in its object. “One must have tradition in oneself,” Adorno tells us, “to hate it properly.” Or said differently, in order to interrogate the failings of culture, to grasp its moments of falsity or untruth, its false consciousness, one must have an intimate knowledge of its form and its relation to the works that preceded it (and in many instances, those that came later). What the Critic derides as “erudition” is the knowledge of the object requisite for disclosing its determination by society.

All of this is to say, then, that genuine love of culture, as I have defined it, is a prerequisite of its hatred. And one can only see the object of critique, I want to argue further, if, like Oedipus, one tears out one’s eyes. Hyperbole aside, against the critical criticism of culture, I want to insist on an “aesthetics of blindness” grounded in the materialist dialectic, as first mentioned in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory:

The truth of the new, as the truth of what is not already used up, is situated in the intentionless. This sets truth in opposition to reflection, which is the motor of the new, and raises reflection to a second order, to second reflection. […] Second reflection lays hold of the technical procedures, the language of the artwork in the broadest sense, but it aims at blindness.

The intentionless is accessible only to the blind in the sense that the critic can only truly see what a work intends by going beyond its intention. Blindness allows one to see what a work comes to mean in spite of itself, in spite of its own intention: the social significance of a work, what it tells us about our world, can only be decided by way of the willed naiveté of commentary, interpretation, and critique. Strategic blindness is the key to social insight.

There is something tragic about the necessity of an aesthetics of blindness. But one must understand “tragedy” here in its technical sense: necessary misrecognition of the meaning of one’s deed that results in one’s downfall. The tragedy of art is that artworks are the deeds of artists whose failure can only be apprehended after the fact. Just as the tragic actor only retrospectively grasps the meaning of her deed, so must criticism seek to bring to speech after the fact what remains unconscious in the deed of the artist, the artwork. Yet the failure of art is not a question of a lack of talent or technical ability on the part of artists. Art owes its failure to the form of social life that makes it both necessary and impossible: “Art really only exists as long as it is impossible by virtue of the order which it transcends.”

Adorno frequently analogized society to the Sphinx, the artist to the blinded Oedipus: the work of art is the answer that topples the monster by naming the humanity it opposes. To complete his analogy by way of conclusion: perhaps the critic, then, is Tiresias, the blind seer who knows what Oedipus cannot, the fate that will unfold through his deeds. Yet Tiresias cannot save him, or even convey his fate in terms he can understand, just as the critic is helpless to fundamentally change an art whose fate is, in the last instance, determined by that of the world.

 

Oedipus Rex. Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. 1967.

Oedipus Rex. Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. 1967.

 

TEEN: Love Yes

by Cara S. Greene

In Chapter XV of his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argued that there is no such thing as purely passive spectatorship, that distraction and concentration have always been the mutually dependent and necessary conditions for interacting with art. He claimed that the spectator is always “using” and “perceiving” an artwork at the same time, and that habituated or incidental interactions with artworks are “true” modes of encountering them. Still, there’s a difference between actively considering an artwork and looking past it; even though artworks can be “absorbed” in different ways, passive engagement can be analyzed as a phenomenon in its own right. In fact, due to the proliferation of music production and exhibition in the last century, passive spectatorship--passive listening in particular--has become its own mode of artistic engagement, both theoretically and in practice. No longer confined to the concert hall, radio, or recording studio, music has become part of the experiential tableau, making passive listening, or at least sensory juggling, practically unavoidable. Combined with the deluge of new artistic material via social media and internet journalism, increased multitasking and shorter attention spans have changed the way contemporary listeners respond to musical subtleties. The music industry has kept pace by inventing gimmicks, such as “visual albums” like Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which offer simultaneous audio and video simulation. Sampling practices have become more indulgent, with artists recycling overt hooks from chart-toppers of the recent past, e.g., Jason Derulo’s allocation of Imogen Heap’s 2005 hit “Hide and Seek” in his song “Whatcha Say” (2010), or Robin Schulz’s use of Baby Bash’s earworm “Suga Suga” (2003) in his song “Sugar” (2015). Music’s techno-cultural swell has also prompted an artistic backlash: Macintosh Plus and Napalm Death, illustrative of the genres vaporwave and grindcore, respond to “passivity” itself, the former by exploring the aesthetic dimensions of relaxing enjoyment, and the latter by abrasively rejecting it.

Though the music of Beyoncé and Napalm Death represent two extreme ways of engaging with passive listening, the entire spectrum of popular music has had to reckon with the phenomenon. For instance, contemporary indie music falls somewhere between acquiescence and revolt. In his speech “Indie Goes High-Tech,” music writer Adam Harper explains that today’s college radio station is having an identity crisis: the old “Indie Aesthetic”--described as “low tech,” “naive,” “childlike,” “archaic,” “benign,” and “warm”--is being phased out along with the production techniques it arose from, and replaced with the “High Tech Aesthetic”: “glossy,” “metallic,” “technologically enhanced,” “complex,” “decadent,” “excessive,” and “almost aggressive.” In spite of this stylistic polarization, as well as  the spectator’s diminished capacity to detect and appreciate musical details, some artists, like New York dance-prog band TEEN, have combined conventionality with nuance.

A distracted listener might deem TEEN’s music another addition to the millennial generation’s party playlist and dismiss or embrace it as such. This kind of diagnosis is attributable to the band’s reliance on synthpop conventions: drum samples, simple looped phrases, pitch bends, playful yelping, and floaty falsetto. These stylistic elements are the garments of ‘80s nostalgia, and TEEN—like countless other musicians today, both mainstream and marginal—reap the benefits of the analog synth’s value as a cultural relic. As a fairly standard feature of marketable music, TEEN’s electric harmonies could ostensibly find themselves on Urban Outfitters mixtape, administered by management to reinforce the brand’s cultural relevance and lubricate their consumer's shopping experience.

A critic might try to pluck TEEN from the growing heap of dance-pop bands and salvage their music by dissecting it scientifically. This active listener might suggest that not only is TEEN’s execution of electronic music conventions sophisticated and meticulous, but the band’s mainstream tendencies are often perforated by weird subtleties that break up the overall sound’s listenability. Take the single “Tokyo” from their new album, Love Yes: a conspicuous dance tune, “Tokyo”'s core is a clean, looped synth swinging in a 6/8 time signature. At various points throughout, the ease of the song is interrupted by digressions: blipping arpeggios—reminiscent of the intro to Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”—are layered on top of the synth undercurrent, syncopated quadruplet hits cut into the chorus, and the middle of the song opens up into an off-the-wall electronic effects solo, more evocative of Emerson, Lake & Palmer than CSS. The vocals and lyrical content are both catchy and clever. Doo-wop-style backup singing supports the lead vocals sung by Teeny Lieberson, who recounts the tragic-comedic story of a wife’s pursuit of physical agelessness to win back her estranged husband. All of these elements form a collage that captures the situation of women in the pop music industry; when creativity wears a flirty uniform, the seams can come apart. The song’s singularity manifests in these details, and their amalgamation distinguishes TEEN’s unique artistic style.  

Though these identifying aspects are clearly discernable, they only stand out if you’re paying attention. If not, “Tokyo” can easily blend into the colorful spread of daily life, as a garnish rather than a dish in its own right. The fact is, music is everywhere, there’s a lot of it, and it’s always playing. Our growing disengagement with music-qua-music has galvanized audiophiles to “save” it from blind enjoyment and hasty judgment by explaining it. Culture and art critics write about music to effectively play it through a literary speaker, so that the work can be encountered and thought about in a different way. Writers isolate a cultural object to convince their readership to consciously (re)consider the work on its own, to acknowledge its particularity. While the passive listener may fail to hear what distinguishes the object, the critic tends to interpret or fetishize it, replacing the aesthetic experience with an intellectual one. The problem is, an art object is neither fully autonomous, independent of its social and ideological conditions, nor can it be discounted as simply a reproducible “thing,” prop, or tool. As Benjamin implies, it’s both. Consequently, the potential for a piece of music to function as an artwork hinges on the listener’s ability to pick up on the details that make it unique without removing it from its cultural and aesthetic context, and resist the critical temptation to dissolve it into discourse.

Cover of Love Yes.

Cover of Love Yes.

 

London Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble / Steve Reich: Sextet; Clapping Music; Music for Pieces of Wood

by Adam Rothbarth

 

What constitutes a great performance, or even a successful one, of postmodern music? Tasked with providing interpretations that can be seen by audiences and benefactors alike as intellectually stimulating, historically conscious, and economically sensible, conductors and ensembles are seemingly burdened with the impossible, for as today’s concert experience shows, achieving all three with any reasonable success is an elusive if not impossible achievement.

Within the essence of postmodern music is embedded a struggle with the necessity to toil against the interpretative and compositional standards of the status quo, and simultaneously, a fundamental confusion about how best to accomplish this. After WWII, music exploded into a deluge of responses to the horror of contemporary social life and the increasing domination of industrial reproduction over the arts, causing some to question whether art’s potential to express the contradictions of social life in a meaningful way had finally come to a close. Since the shift from modernism, composers have amplified their jurisdiction over not only the form of the music, but its performance and reception as well. Since Webern’s unprecedented tendency toward using extensive markings in his scores, composers have sought to bestride the aspects of performance bound up with musical logic and interpretation, instead forcing performers to retreat further and further into reactionary pursuits toward autonomy and imagination such as historical reconstructive performance practice (in which one tries to recreate the original objective conditions of a composition and its performance). Ever since Cage transformed the thinking performer by privileging indeterminacy over reason, one must question the relationship between interpretation and formal meaning in the performance of new music.

I often wonder whether minimalism is meant to be interpreted. Because there are no typical forms in serious music today, there is really nothing for the performer to do when it comes to contemplating and communicating how particular pieces either affirm or deviate from the norm. What the performer is communicating, then, is not the degree to which a piece self-critical, but how the piece is unique in itself. Most music today is self-contained, unveiling all of its secrets to the performer immediately through the sheer specificity of its isolated laws. Ben Johnston invented his own tuning system and pitch notation, while Partch created his own instruments. Nancarrow’s keyboard music often transcends the technical ability of the human body, while some performances of Xenakis and Crumb are interpretations only insofar as the performer must interrogate the indeterminate aspects of the score in order to decide what is even being asked of her.

Listening to the London Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble’s new recording of Steve Reich’s percussion works, it is immediately obvious that this album is excellent. The mixing is superb, marimbas jump out with dazzling clarity, the timbres of the pieces of wood are rich and precise. The rhythmic exactitude on all three pieces is staggering, so acutely perfect that it appears as if there are no performers at all, but rather that the instruments are engaged in some sort of mechanical conversation. This, indeed, is a significant aspect of the aesthetic theory of much of Reich’s music: that even the most basic motif, when it reaches the apex of its motoric capability, can be subject to expansive, prismatic regeneration via shifts across different voices. The “thesis” of this record is Reich’s famous “phasing” technique—especially central to Clapping Music and Music for Pieces of Wood—in which rhythmic motifs are shifted temporally between lines, creating a staggering effect. During these moments, a sort of parallax is opened up, inviting the listener to enjoy and, ideally, contemplate the brief, particular colors and timbres that emerge. Through repetition, something “new” becomes possible by way of something static; and yet it is the sense of staticity that remains at the end of the piece, as the ultimate synthesis is the result not of an introduced antithesis or a transformed thesis, but a thesis, shifted. These parallax moments act as the locus for interpretation by performers, who get to mediate the drama and delicacy with which these transitions appear. This isn’t to say that Reich’s music doesn’t require a virtuosic mastery of percussion technique. It does, which is evidenced by the performance of this music not only as concert music, but also as pedagogical exercises in universities and percussion classes across the country. There are, in fact, many small decisions the performer must make in performing something as seemingly simple as Clapping Music. They must account for accents, the space on each hand where the hands meet, the degree of resonance of each clap, the amount of space between the hands both during and in between claps, tempo, dynamic variance, and how the texture of the whole is balanced across each individual line. In that sense there are actually an infinite number of ways the piece can be performed. But what do these decisions mean?

The centerpiece of the album is the half-hour long Sextet, which traverses a kaleidoscopic series of timbres, rhythms, and tempi. The LSO Percussion Ensemble performs it with nuance and commitment. Scored for four percussionists playing across marimbas, vibraphones, bass drums, crotales, sticks, and tam-tams, as well as two keyboardists playing both pianos and synthesizers, the piece offers a sort of magnified take on the style of his earlier Music for 18 Musicians. The tempo shifts between movements are less fluid than in 18 Musicians, creating more jarring shifts as movements close and meters change. The ways Reich plays with rhythm and meter, forcing the attentive rhythmic listener into a prolonged pseudo-caesura in which they are forced to contemplate whether these shifts are meter shifts, hemiolas, or simply aggressive accents, are among the more interesting and unique moments in lateral micro-musical space since Brahms, at least insofar as temporality goes. The episodes in which these rhythmic events enter into conflict with larger temporalities are where the piece comes closest to transcending its limitations.

It is clear from listening to this kind of music that it aims to critique oppressive mechanized reproduction by aesthetically mimicking it, and it is clear from thinking about it that Reich and his cohort sought to find color and meaning within the motoric, repetitive gestures of labor. Its desire to live freely in reified time, communicated with surgical efficiency by the excellent London Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble, points toward the hope for a kind of music that could actually operate on a new plane of temporality. Perhaps if that can be gleaned from this record, it is a success on numerous levels. 

Cover of LSO Percussion Ensemble / Steve Reich: Sextet; Clapping Music; Music for Pieces of Wood.

Cover of LSO Percussion Ensemble / Steve Reich: Sextet; Clapping Music; Music for Pieces of Wood.

 

The Limits of Kitsch Criticism

by Bret Schneider

This article is a response to Jensen Suther's Undeleting Garden of Delete: A Critical Intervention on Schneider's May review of Oneohtrix Point Never's Garden of Delete.


 

Modern criticism developed when art became serious and demanded thought. Yet the vast majority of our culture today isn't meant to be seriously thought about. Oddly enough, cultural criticism has blossomed, and a very smart one at that. This has led to a purely contemporary condition whereby critics apply their erudition to works that aren't meant to be thought about, and are better off without thought: kitsch criticism. Only in an era when art has become completely throwaway will there be people who pathologically hear echoes of Beethoven in fleeting vapor trails. This has led to a great deal of bombastic claims regarding the latest trends and most recent dead pop stars, and how they must be expressing Marxist contradictions of society, being the last modernist and so on and so on. It advances a form of cultural tailism, where critical reflection, once the clarifying edge of art, chases the rearguard and becomes the obfuscating edge. But the correct philosophical position does not ensure progress in aesthetics. Such projections usually end up revealing more about detached academicism and unmediated criticism than the artworks in question. When this detached criticism is misrecognized as authoring culture, it reveals its own pretensions about bearing the torch of culture. Yet this new form of kitsch criticism merely reproduces moderate culture by tailing after the least contradictory expressions of society, assuming that erudition will somehow change them. In truth, kitsch criticism and kitsch emerge at the same time, but not necessarily critically. It is plainly delusional to believe one can write critically about kitsch—amongst the great rubbish heap of writings on kitsch there exist no examples of criticism that have actually transformed the way culture is produced. And yet the goal remains the impossible and undesirable task of making kitsch elegant. Why not critique works that demand critique and appeal to the development of aesthetic knowledge?

Kitsch criticism dispenses with this avant-garde aim to keep culture moving via taking up a leadership role in cultural production, instead opting to affirm talent within popular music conventions. This means it willingly does not address art's self-consciousness of its own historical position within contemporary society from the standpoint of cultural production. But there's a crucial difference between a work of art being good or interesting, and a work of art being critical. There's countless good, talented art out there, almost none of which is important. Perhaps I am mistaken, but Suther's criticism of Garden of Delete is exemplary of kitsch criticism's affirmation of the inessential because it liquidates the self-reflexive, immanent qualities of culture from the standpoint of cultural production into an aesthete's program that interprets culture by popular music norms—norms that are now supported by classical music criteria. Yet OPN inevitably creates from the standpoint of the producer of aesthetic knowledge in the culture factory, and not the classical beholder. Kitsch criticism is not only backwards, but recently it has taken the form of a desperation to defend kitsch in severe ways, of which projecting classical criteria is only one example.

The invocation of 'caesura' is only one example from Suther’s response that shows how criticism is unable to grasp the radical components of new music. Due to Suther's normative framework, his defense of G.O.D. on the grounds that it contains a caesura moment renders caesura a positive aesthetic value and something that is an intrinsic quality of all good artworks. Yet Adorno, Suther's reference, was only interested in caesura negatively, the extent to which it displayed early indications of contradictions in bourgeois society by negating compositional form within itself. Suther appears to turn Adorno upside down. This also goes against Suther's claim, (which is right in some respects), that G.O.D. is founded on the montage of samples from throwaway culture that are framed within a totality. As such, any caesuras contained must also exist as degenerated found objects amidst the culture trash that Lopatin selects. In other words, they are not traditionally composed. If caesuras are evident, they are only as oblique dark spots, or worm-eaten holes in the sampled trash that have nothing left to negate because society and its concepts of progress as transmuted into musical form is not assumed in new music, but rather suspended. Happening to find their way into a composition and being intentionally composed into one are two very different things, oblique and acute symptoms respectively. The progressive components of G.O.D. do not reside in an anomaly in musical conventions from two centuries ago. Such components may exist, but not as evidence of their newness.

It is of course very desirable to take culture seriously, and G.O.D. is potentially a worthy object, having some seriousness in it the extent to which it produces and advances musical knowledge for other artists. After all, it was to Editions Mego, the uber serious label of implacable electronic music that Lopatin first appealed and built his aesthetic program upon. Lopatin’s decision in G.O.D. to apparently pursue a style of 'montage' that sounds like it was constructed to the utmost details in tracker programs aims to critique the passive way a lot of so-called experimental music is created today. It protests the urge towards the formless, cosmic, and chillwave aesthetic in the same way OPN earlier protested the hyper-edited constructs of 'clicks 'n cuts' music that ultimately became an affectation. There is nothing of the jokey vaporwave Eccojams in this album. It takes itself seriously. And this is the main argument in my original review, namely that when artists enter the public realm and are tasked with putting forth a conclusive aesthetic statement, these statements often end up pathologically revisiting modernist movements that are otherwise considered dead or irrelevant (in this case Surrealism). It evinces a self-contradictory practice because on the one hand it claims heir to avant-gardism by trying to teach (lead) other artists, but on the other it relinquishes this project by trying to produce for non-artists and consequently emphasizing non-artistic things. The critique of the listener has nothing to do with the ‘market’, as Suther suggests, but points to the problems of cultural leadership as expressed in the actual music.

As such, self-reflexion in G.O.D. is expressed indirectly. This indirectness is echoed by Suther’s critique, insofar as the appeal to musical knowledge plays only a minor role in his discussion of arpeggios and pitch-shifting (admittedly, I didn't discuss these at all in my original review, for the sake of doing a more socially focused analysis). Yet the best music of our era leaves no stone unturned when it comes to investigating the technical means by which an aesthetic is expressed. For instance, Keith Fullerton Whitman's Generator was a thorough investigation of arpeggios that would raise sound artists' ensuing understanding of that particular sound organization to a more acute level. The means--which are like G.O.D., of a historical variety--play a leading role instead of a passive one, and it appeals not only to itself, but to an abstract musical subject that conditions the work. In G.O.D. many of these technical means appear to be included passively as subordinate features of a broader critique of society, and kitsch criticism reifies this. It is a road that ultimately leads back into traditional forms of music, for instance the pathology of montage since Surrealism, or the dead-end games of virtuosic songwriting. It is also why Suther's critique ends up being a literary critique of music and not a musical critique of music. The discussion of puberty is very interesting, but has very little if anything to do with the avant-garde project of raising musicians to a superior historical consciousness of the still enigmatic means by which sound is organized. If a statement about prebuscent humanity was all that it expressed, it would be better formulated as an essay, and listeners would be better served by reading Kant. On the other hand, avant-garde music wagers that the examination of musical means of production will lead to unpredictable changes in culture because there are still techniques and ensuing sonic visions to be discovered, and that lay dormant.

OPN isn’t unique here, it is a hallmark of our era that musical knowledge and its expansion is enshrouded in non-musical expressions of reality. Even so, the wager of the vaporwave that Suther invokes is, generally speaking, to undertake a thorough investigation of not one modest musical technique, but rather the whole of music listening experience itself. It is an all-in wager, and one that, historically speaking, continually fails, at least in contrast to the successful expansion of musical knowledge in more modest, technical avant-gardism. Vaporwave (and similar currents in music) undertakes a serious inquiry into passive listening from the standpoint of production. The technical means by which passive listening is produced is now in the hands of listeners, who in turn become producers. But they can be either critical producers or uncritical reproducers. The social situation of listening is not extrinsic to the work in this genre, but a fundamental aesthetic principle that determines its content. The music itself is a self-avowed and explicit political critique of the culture industry from within. In turn it not only warrants a political critique, but demands it so that it's aesthetic can be raised to a level of politics. But kitsch criticism perceives successfully composed, and self-evident bourgeois music from the standpoint of the thing-in-itself, instead of acutely critical music in flux. Kitsch criticism is very specifically not immanent critique from within the development of cultural production, but instead in this instance what appears to be an expression of Heideggerian phenomenology. Discussing the artwork as a contained unity that does not point beyond itself is akin to trying to understand a political leader with no consideration of the base that constitutes their activity.

As my original claim was that OPN is middlebrow and appeals to both regressive and progressive tendencies, (not merely regressive, as Suther believes), I think Lopatin's goals with G.O.D. still may fall within an avant-garde framework, and not a popular-classical one. Suther clings to the traditionalist conception of through-composed music, something that all experimental music has dispensed with in favor of various non-compositional strategies—strategies that are ultimately thought to be in the greater service of developing new forms of sound organization. Even though it's present, G.O.D. is not particularly exemplary as a through-composed album, nor is it meant to be; large chunks of sound awkwardly sit side-by-side, and it intentionally falls far below the threshold of the intricately arranged IDM that OPN comes out of, for example. OPN is no Beethoven, let alone Stockhausen or even Aphex Twin. Rather, the sound objects have a common sensibility to the way painters like Frank Stella have desired to not 'paint' or 'express' an artistic vision but rather to use paint as a readymade, albeit one that has to be actively extracted. It is actually a non-compositional technique that makes up G.O.D., and it is one that assumes a subjective position that prioritizes a more amateurish bedroom producer position over traditional composition. Lopatin and collaborator Jon Rafman’s images that reference trashy bedroom studios and troll lairs are evidence of this total absorption into production. It's an absorption that may offer no reward other than its own activity, and which deserves to be raised to an objective position. It posits this condition as a rewarding immersion into individual creative experience, but also one that is potentially nihilistic when not framed within a broader context for aesthetic development. It is a self-reflexive activity that constantly seems to slide back into the vacuum of isolated pseudo-activity and unconscious cultural production. By airing its aporia with this condition, it aims to move beyond it.

OPN truly does come out of the modest Boards of Canada IDM tradition, which has always been tough to clarify because it is designed to operate on the subconscious. G.O.D., like Geogaddi for example, appeals to something like a musical unconscious, reminiscent of Surrealism. It doesn't quite use subliminal advertising techniques like Geogaddi, but it comes close in smuggling in reality and exploiting passive listening as a means of critiquing it. It feels out the ideas of music that have had passive influence on listening, and questions it by working within those forms, hoping to ultimately appeal to self-reflexion. This is perhaps what Suther is referring to when he thinks G.O.D. tries to make kitsch elegant, and this is what I meant when I said that OPN is the quintessential pastiche artist. G.O.D. is not really montage, not in the way musique-concrète set out to be—and it alone perfected the art—because Lopatin usually makes his own sound objects from scratch instead of sampling and transforming them. Even if it were montage, those techniques are not actively questioned in form but assumed. And these sound objects are constructed in the manner of a certain style of MIDI composition that is hard to consciously identify, yet known in some way, like the enchantment of muzak. It is MIDI composition that was almost exclusively utilized as background music in videogames, one wasn't supposed to notice it, and this is precisely its appeal. It's practice in mining the historically overlooked, the 'minor', partakes in the culture of research that has been prevalent since electronic music’s arts and research turn in the early '00s, exemplified by Editions Mego’s Recollection GRM series, and the Creel Pone project. This is expressed more acutely in Lopatin’s dredging of Ben Zimmerman’s '80s tracker compositions. Nor is this specific to music: contemporary art is currently entrenched in digging up the fossilized remains of minor artists, in an attempt to rewrite history. It seems to say, "What if we had gone in this direction?", as a symptom of the ugly appearances and newness inherent in the present cultural crisis of ambivalence. 

But on G.O.D., research and composition are utilized by being framed within a traditional artwork. They are tested, so to speak. And like Geogaddi, it embeds the hellscapes of the new in the easy listening of yore so that the listener can absorb the ugliness of reality, the "bad new days" but unknowingly. It is like feeding a dog a pill by wrapping it in bacon. It's not really predigested kitsch, but it uses tricks in how it mediates listening experience. And now that the listener is disenchanted because they are also producers, tricks are easy to see through! This has been a style of electronic music since the early ‘90s—the tensed coexistence of enchanting fairytale melodies with samples from the contemporary musical hell on earth. The music makes no conclusions about the outcome, but presents the listener with both possibilities of culture, not society at large—is this a fairytale ending in which we finally create a music that is fulfilling, or a Boscshian hell of cultural production? It makes one feel like this is a critical juncture.

As such, G.O.D. does not so much try to make kitsch elegant but rather uses kitsch as a carrier for difficult music. However, as such music has become a purely transparent activity because so many people produce it and can see through the tricks, one always wonders, Does such avant-garde music use kitsch for its own purposes, or does kitsch rather use the avant-garde? If the title Garden of Delete has meaning, it is not as an indictment of culture writ large, but rather the way musical knowledge and music experience as music experience is constantly deleted from the program, with the caveat that it might still be recovered from the hard drive. G.O.D. is like a beta run through the new program of deletion: when kitsch passivity absorbs active listening, all that remains is to be an active deleter. It is not traditional composition, as Suther suggests, but an attempt at decomposition. G.O.D. does not need to be “undeleted”; it is a requiem of deletion that openly reflects the social situation of music that constantly wastes the potential of music as social knowledge. G.O.D. is truly a negative album, an example itself of the near meaninglessness of constructing in a wasteland society wherein possibilities are no sooner raised than they are deleted from experience. By representing this phenomenon, it hopes to pass beyond its enchantment.

If I have reservations about G.O.D. it may simply be because I personally prefer the 'technical' avant garde, so to speak. As a sound artist I prefer to listen to something that teaches me about sound in some way. I'd guess that thousands of sound artists elsewhere feel similarly. Sound artists sense that one is being disingenuous when he or she proclaims that they are good humanitarians and that they appreciate all types of music. In a world of growing amateur cultural production, people more and more listen to the things that have direct interest to what they themselves make. Music is less and less a beholding activity, and more and more an actively developing body of knowledge. This alone fosters the conditions by which avant-gardism can flourish. Otherwise, the concept of progress in art is neutralized.

By analogy, OPN and someone like Keith Fullerton Whitman are like Surrealism and Analytic Cubism: different types of inquiry that are both ultimately aimed at teaching musicians about sound. And I think that with the total degeneration of all things surreal into pathological affectation, and more importantly the fact that listeners today lack the listening comprehension that can distinguish between a still life of a fruit and a piece of fruit itself, what is needed above all today is music that aims to raise musical comprehension to a higher and more active level. G.O.D. tries do this by showing a process of how listening is exploited and how listeners are manipulated, as if to say, “See, this is how it happens, snap out of it!” But the history of art that tries to strip the veil by teasing the beholder with it usually ends up in a new type of enchantment with said veil. And in this day in age, anything even remotely resembling Surrealism needs to be seriously questioned instead of assumed. G.O.D. is at its best, and this sets it apart from earlier vaporwave, when the lines between enchantment and disenchantment are clearly demarcated, not unlike a game of peek-a-boo with a baby.

OPN may not be the next Beethoven, but he may be Boards of Canada in distress. If ensuing music in this sensibility takes up the culture trash of passive listening as its content, it shouldn't be expected to venerate the sordid remains of bourgeois music composition, but instead treat its techniques as trash amidst trash, no better or worse than kitsch. This is the ultimate contradiction of kitsch criticism: it believes that after all this cultural decay, bourgeois music composition can get through culture unscathed and can be applied to culture trash to save the day, instead of understanding that bourgeois music, perhaps above all, has been degraded to trash. Lopatin is well aware that he is composing music from within the uncultured trashcan of culture. It is kitsch listening that doesn't understand this by supposing itself cultured. In 2010, writing about vaporwave before it had a name (I proposed “conceptual ambient”), I posited that the aesthetic is one of searching through trash to find something that glistens, which involves holding it up to the dim light and rotating it. OPN's recent work is a slight change in direction because it introduces an activity of decomposition in time. OPN exposes composition as pseudo-activity, and represents it as something readymade and reified, not transformative. Composition is also trash, so new music in this framework will probably take the form of trash more thoroughly organizing trash, and with trash. Only in this way will aesthetic knowledge be built in this particular practice. Such a critical aesthetic of the self-organization of trash is highly preferable to the false veneration of talent, sublimity, or virtuosity that pervades popular musical consciousness and its appendage, kitsch criticism.

 

 

"Capital: Debt - Territory - Utopia" @ Hamburger Bahnhof

by Gregor Baszak

 

“Please take this with you,” reads a hard to miss sign in red letters at the entrance to the exhibition “Capital: Debt – Territory – Utopia” at the Hamburger Bahnhof art museum in Berlin. The sign urges visitors to grab a 24-page booklet on their way into the 10,000 square foot hall, in which curators Eugen Blume and Catherine Nichols have put on display a vast amount of works of art of various genres and media (130 to be exact). The exhibit culminates at the end of the long hall with a reproduction of Joseph Beuys' 1980 installation “The Capital Space 1970—1977,” originally produced for the Venice Biennial. The booklet will become a crucial companion to the visitors' experience of the show, as will become apparent.

Upon entry, one will face a two and a half minute video by artist Binelde Hyrcan (Cambeck, 2013), which shows four Angolan boys playing in a make-believe car dug into sand. The boys' fantasy play clashes with the reality of poverty: One boy boasts that his dad lives in the United States “in the good life” and that he plans on joining his father there, whereas, he says, the other boys will be left behind “in the slum.” The “good life” of Western capitalism probably awaits none of the four, and their laughing and shouting will accompany the visitors throughout the installation, as it echoes through the long, high-ceilinged hall, only clashing with the penetrating audio-recorded exclamations of the speaker of Andreas Fischer's work “Richter” (2013).

The first several dozen works on display are put under the motto “Debt,” which is a pervasive, ancient means of constituting human relations, wherein humans “appear to play an altogether passive role,” according to a description on the wall. Here, the point of the entire show quickly becomes evident: to wrest these humans out of the passive role into being active interpreters, and hopefully creators, of their social world. Nothing less had Beuys aimed for in formulating his concept of the “social sculpture,” which intended to reinterpret art's role in the world and to provide it with the power of provoking revolutionary change. The underlying idea behind the selection and arrangement of the works, in other words, is to make the viewers actively question inherited ideological assumptions in order to open the possibility of arranging the world itself in ways less subject to the anonymous powers of money, debt, and capital.

Yet, the viewer is not so active after all in “Capital”: Above almost every artifact or canvas is an overarching quote printed on the wall, which establishes the theme around which the works were selected. You read, for instance, a quote by British economist John Maynard Keynes: “Now it is true that the needs of human beings may seem to be insatiable.” Right underneath you find an original Dutch Renaissance rendition of the nativity scene Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1520), where one of the three kings visiting Jesus, Caspar, as the booklet reads, “seems to be extremely interested in his own gift, eyeing the gold coins at a time when early capitalism was on the rise.” Caspar, indeed, is greedily attracted to the gold, almost close enough to touch it while not paying any attention at all to the toddler-savior.

Just a few works to the side, the visitors are invited to put on headphones to watch a cheesy Goldman Sachs commercial, in which employees of all conceivable skin tones praise the work environment at the diverse investment bank. And if you have followed the works in their numerical order, you will have watched the 4-minute long commercial right after experiencing works by Martin Luther and Ezra Pound, who condemn usury as sinful and unnatural. In the same section, finally, the visitors will encounter Jeff Koons’ 1980 work “New Shop-Vac Wet / Dry,” a vacuum cleaner on top of a brightly lit Plexiglas box. As the booklet notes, the piece is presented to the visitors as if it were a commodity in a department store, appealing to the consumerist interests of a consumerist mass society. The work is kitsch, but its point is that all art in the postmodern age is kitsch, so we might as well embrace it.

Obviously, this twist clashes with the primarily Christianity-themed works in this section, and it tasks the visitors with drawing connections and creating a coherent whole out of the diverse set of artifacts and works of art. The exhibition as a whole thus presents itself in the garb of an “open” artwork, where the interpretative gaps can be filled by the audience only. Such is the intention, but in reality the visitors are still left with the arrangement and ever-present commentary by the curators, since the way the works are put together and commented on by the booklet entries and quotes on the wall reveal another clear intention. And while this intention is a critical assessment of capitalism in the hope of somehow encouraging the audience to think politically, the show naturally falls below the political, most assuredly because its understanding of what capitalism actually is doesn’t run very deep.

As Theodor Adorno argued in his provocative essay “Commitment,” ostensibly “political” art often sacrifices complexity in favor of simplistic propaganda. As a result, you receive a problematic, short-sighted critique of capitalism, a critique, furthermore, that doesn't understand capitalism as an anonymous phenomenon of social mediation, but rather as one of moral failings on the side of its individual actors. For religious anti-capitalism, then, the sinful sides of capital must be rejected; for Koons’ affirmative postmodern attitude, you can’t but embrace them.

Though even if a “political” work of art aspired to greater complexity, such critique cannot be expected, according to Adorno, to result in unprecedented conversion moments; rather, he writes, self-described political artists are merely “preaching to the saved,” as the typical audience for such shows can be expected to be liberal enough already.

It is, of course, altogether imaginable that a fairly apolitical person goes to experience “Capital” and is provoked to think further about her role in the social hierarchy. What will she realize as she leaves the gallery to go and explore possibilities for making her voice heard? Surely, that politics is a complex process of the expression and mediation of the will of specific social groups, usually formed around political ideologies and programs and acting through political parties to realize said will. Where will this person go then?

Problematically, the curators hint at an answer in the show's “Utopia” section: In a display box toward the end of the hall we can find a black-and-white photograph of Petra Kelly, one of the co-founders of the German Green Party. According to the booklet, “Kelly was convinced that a collective, non-violent means of civil disobedience would engender a society without egotism, profit and war.” The Green Party, of course, went on to support the first German war effort of the post-War period in the Kosovo in 1999 and was instrumental in transforming Germany toward a thoroughly neoliberal economy. Today, the Green Party receives its electoral support primarily form urban middle-class voters, often with university degrees, who hold mostly socially liberal views. Naturally, such voters assent to a critique of capitalism that primarily condemns the moral failings of its subjects.

However, the show's “Utopia” section points indeed to the redeeming quality of art within neoliberalism: In an ingenious selection of works and quotes, we encounter ambitious paintings by Paul Klee and Cy Twombly, among others, which are accompanied by a noteworthy quote by German philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels: “The act of paying attention, within which the conspicuous takes shape, is itself . . .  a kind of response.” Klee's 1927 painting Departure of the Ships places abstract shapes resembling boats next to a red arrow pointing right (no endorsement of Hillary Clinton's campaign intended there, presumably). The painting is supposed to be understood as a challenge of Klee's to the viewers to engage in close reading. The booklet reproduces a quote in which Klee states that modernist artists “reveal the reality that is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe and that there are other, more latent realities.” “The act of paying attention” to works of art, in other words, is likely to produce in the viewer a keen sense for complexities that might otherwise have been hidden behind the immediately apparent clutter of capitalist reality. The reduction in complexity by ostensibly political works of art may hinder rather than encourage such questioning gaze.

Cy Twombly's 1955 work Free Wheeler fits well in this context, placed closely to Klee's painting. The massive canvas reveals a seemingly infinite crayon line on a white background. As representation had given way to abstraction by the mid-20th century, Twombly uses the means of the medium of painting to reveal that this did not signify a reduction in possibilities of expression; rather, the twists and turns of the line allow for constant rediscoveries by the spectator, who struggles to locate a beginning or an end point to the line. Yet again, we are encouraged to penetrate the canvas searchingly.

All this is to say, in short, that the show's aesthetic ambitions diverge from its political views: the latter reduce complexity in favor of hollow moralizing, while the former invite the viewers to encounter an immense accumulation of fascinating works that provoke an intense intellectual examination of their qualities. Capital is assaulted the best by a “ruthless critique of everything existing,” according to the young Karl Marx. This entails our own inherited prejudices to be sure, but it tasks us to go beyond questioning our own supposed moral failings in favor of getting at the “reality that is behind visible things.” To transform this reality, however, we need politics, and it is doubtful which contribution can be expected from a political art that merely reinforces our already held views.

 

"Das Kapital: Schuld - Territorium - Utopie" ("Capital" Debt - Territory - Utopia") opened on July 2, 2016 at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. It closes on November 6.

Image from Goldman Sachs commercial "Working at Goldman Sachs" (2013).

Image from Goldman Sachs commercial "Working at Goldman Sachs" (2013).

 
Exhibition poster for "Capital: Debt - Territory - Utopia." 

Exhibition poster for "Capital: Debt - Territory - Utopia." 

Criticism & Ambivalence

by Bret Schneider

 

Let’s take a moment and consider what is happening: the people who are supposed to be really interested in art, those who are expected to be professionally committed, connected, and engaged in art, are those who have essentially said, “meh, I’m not really that interested.” Those who are supposed to interpret difficult art for a confused but interested public don’t really care to do so. It’s not that they can’t, it’s that they won’t. The critics on the inside seem to feel that it’s fraudulent to advocate for a culture they don’t really believe in. When pressed, most art critics are ambivalent about contemporary art, and so the general public is as a result.

A case in point: last year Kunstkritikk asked a number of art critics whether or not post-internet culture has fostered a new generation of post-internet art critics, and consequently new modes of thinking through difficult cultural issues. The scope of the answers pointed beyond the question, raising issues not limited to post-internet culture (or even 21st-century culture in general), and strongly implying—more so than many other surveys on the state of art criticism—that before any new art criticism can be taken up, lingering issues from the old art criticism project should first be put to rest. The questionnaire is reminiscent of the student who asks their teacher a question they already know the answer to. The teacher, in this case a group of professional critics, seem to all respond in unison: “It sounds like you already know the answer.” The student senses in advance that, no, post-internet art has not fostered any new form of critical thought. The questionnaire is then haunted by a subtextual why?, and critics are forced to consider many of the same problems plaguing art criticism long before post-internet art.

This sort of absence of the critic has for the past half-century become an increasing phenomenon, with this serving as just another instance for art critics to reflect on why it is that they are left out, and in what sort of hypothetical culture they might have a critical role to play. At the same time, it was critics themselves around the post-internet phenomena who elected not to be sufficiently critical because this culture did not really need it. What it was perceived as needing was affirmation. None of this is meant to slight post-internet art or its artists, but instead to point to the contradictory role art criticism is put in. In fact, whatever one might say or think about post-internet artists is irrelevant. And this is exactly the point.

It’s not surprising that post-internet art is not perceived as fostering new critical thought, as it predigested thought in its neatly packaged equation. The impulse behind the affirmative design of the post-internet culture was to uncritically accept the readymade values of the late-postmodern (visual studies) generation, and project those values onto art that necessarily takes up new media. The theorists of post-internet art had from the get-go set out to render it an ethically positive and culturally desirable object, and brought it subserviently to the art institutions seeking out a younger generation that would in turn validate the status quo values of contemporary art. Paradoxically, it was at the same time expected to keep contemporary art moving. This was the case even though many of the artists involved seem to in many respects be criticizing the post-‘60s generation. Post-internet art, from the very moment it was designed, set out to penetrate the art institutions. But this penetration can also be seen as a liquidation of values: it should come as no surprise that many of its artists who were once resolutely against painting and sculpture are now making paintings or sculptures! As for the thought around it, it was never really a theory per se, but a veiled rationalization of the not-so-secret aspirations of net artists to show in galleries. In order to fluff up a positive culture on which careers can be made, post-internet theory was required to possess a flawless veneer. Yet its critical foundations were at the same time sorely lacking—criticism and theory around P-I was motivated by an opportunism to seize non-artistic materials and ideologies, and was eager to comply with a vulgar reality principle, even though many net art and post-internet artists seem to take up new media forms specifically to protest their reality. The theories that gave it its social meaning were both motivated by, and unable to fully explore, a thorough critique of late-capitalist culture. And the artists knew (and still know) this.

Criticism was at the same time the exact thing many of its artists yearned for. This occurred to such an extent that critics were (and continue to be) nearly patronized by artists, in a strange reversal of the usual positions. Over time this inability became a rule. Without an autonomous body of criticism, post-internet art has become characterized by a sort of compensatory “smartism” that works extra hard to frontload criticism into its work, attempting to conceal, instead of reveal its blindspots. This carefully crafted art of concealment that results from picking up the slack of criticism is itself its blindspot. It’s not surprising that the Berlin Biennial this year is motivated by the idea of contradictions: its artists endeavor to resolve problems, but also to position themselves as veiled problems. P-I artists have always been plagued by the feeling that the culture they are complicit with is sorely lacking in substance. In other words, they have been bothered by a feeling of ambivalence regarding their own work, as well as that of their peers, so the criticism leveled at them as superficial is not entirely true. The ultimate question is why was this self-canceling failure not only acceptable, but anticipated? It has served as the proof to a long-suspected rule that anything resembling a ‘movement’ is not only doomed to fail, but designed to. 

In only a few short years, Post-internet culture turned out to be little more than a means for reproducing the status quo of contemporary art. So, when the question is posed to critics after its premature canonization regarding new forms of thought, all they seem to say is, “What? We were supposed to be thinking about this? I thought all the thinking was done for us?” Critical thought was never called upon to be a factor in this particular subculture. That is, P-I was from the beginning a kitsch phenomena, with the caveat that it was an attempt to assume an avant-garde role. But the inability to surmount this self-affirming kitsch culture has shown the undesirable way that critique is subordinate to reproduction, and not the opposite.

Regarding the Kunstkritikk survey, the responses vary dramatically, illustrating the disintegration of a unified practice of art criticism. Yet they are united in a common pathology that is difficult to identify—they revolve around trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, with a resignation that Humpty can’t be pieced together because the market has a vested interest in keeping it disintegrated (S. Gabrielsen), or pretending that Dumpty was never broken to begin with (G. Diez). A few responders proclaim that DIS magazine is creating a new critical culture, continuing the critical tradition. But not going into detail regarding that project, it smacks of opportunism to align with whatever is in vogue (which is not to say that there isn’t something critical about DIS), or simply grasping at straws.

Stian Gabrielson takes a sobering viewpoint that the market for contemporary art has so advanced beyond the need for criticism that the only thing left for critics to do is to project a critical importance onto artworks that have no need for it: post-internet art has thrived without it. The consequences of such a realization—and I think it’s accurate—are very real and paralyzing. It implies that art criticism isn’t needed anymore, at all, that it has failed to entrench thought into the market and consequently failed to transform it. For anyone involved in the art world, this will ring very true: contemporary art operates in society more like fashion. Art criticism’s social self-righteousness and overwrought, disconnected theory since the ‘60s has meant that it lags behind the production of curators, for instance, who are avid art lovers (aesthetes, often to a fault) and work tirelessly to buy and sell culture, treating the growing number of MFA and PhD students like new pairs of shoes. All along, the self-incurred minority of critics tries helplessly to demystify the outmoded concepts curators rely upon (e.g. beauty), only to their chagrin.

Likewise, Raimar Strange reflects on how artists are too aligned with the market, echoing a common sentiment from older art critics and historians who only see 'commodification' in the careerism of young artists. This viewpoint neglects the radicalism inherent in the transparent commodification of P-I art, which is its sole redeeming quality. But what about young critics who are often just as eager to devise an affirmative culture, to concoct wildly meaningless theories, and who are ultimately responsible for downplaying critical thought from the P-I cultural program? The new phenomenon of artists and critics eagerly hatching their careers, quickly cobbling together movements for their resumes, and planning for their retrospectives before they have anything to say, may sound vulgarly affirmative to those reared in the ‘60s communes or the ‘70s DIY subcultures. But it also shows how that preceding generation of postmodernists failed to raise aesthetics to a level of politics that can make any substantial difference for the social meaning of art, and have sought out not the voices of new criticism, but rather of sycophantism. P-I isn’t the subject. The subject is the questionable postmodern foundations of contemporary art that are thrown into crisis by P-I art—an art movement that can be seen as trying to move beyond postmodernism in many respects, but also subordinating itself to it in others. That is, P-I art has both regressive and progressive tendencies, and neither really have to do with new media or the internet etc., but rather art historical consciousness and its aporias since postmodernism. But without an autonomous body of art criticism, this potentially radical contradiction is leveled off into mere ambivalence. It means that P-I art can be construed as the either the end of the postmodern era, or the absolute affirmation of it.

Consciously or not, Burbidge understands that the long derided ‘market’ around P-I is its determining factor, when he adopts a radical position in proposing that art critics should take big money from corporations! As a result, the art world would be less nepotistic, and possibly revitalize the role of the public intellectual. It indicates the way in which art, by its own necessities and modern character, is driven back into the big bourgeoisie, and finds that there is only so much slack on an umbilical cord of gold that has long been thought to be cut. Instead, P-I art shows the way it has been reeled in, but in a way that may be more progressive than what we've witnessed for the last 30 years. It shows how the post-‘60s project of anti-enlightenment, minor art and art criticism has failed, and now returns with its tail between its legs to a market that has found itself better off without postmodern criticism. If the project of critical art is to survive into the 21st century, it will need to lay aside juvenile ideas of creating alternative communities and alternative art criticism, and finally find a way to work through, not around the commodity form. The reason critics don’t engage in this more universal way is usually framed as a radical eschewing of a universalizing spirit. But this is in truth a cover-up for the sense that there isn’t any art they are confident enough in to support at such a level. Criticism is at the forefront of cultural ambivalence.

For the regressive side, P-I art’s rapid dissolution has shown that not even its members believed in it. As relevant as the P-I generation is supposed to be, it maintains itself as a mere subculture. The social situation of art after postmodernism responds by bringing it out of its minority anyway, and the critics find themselves a mere appendage, people who are herded into media rooms and separate dining tables to be shielded away from where the real, unmediated conversations lie: between artists, curators, and collectors. This has left critics out of the discussion and either looking for life on the margins, or struggling to create a wedge. Yet what defines the success of an artist or artwork is the criticism around the work, and how trenchant their work is within a broader historical discourse. P-I artists are painfully aware of their rapid marginalization due to this lack. What will become of P-I artists who may lament being lumped into a minor subheading in the canon of an art history that is only developing negatively? Does pigeonholing them into a subgenre make a case for their work being an overhaul of the very way we think of art and representation? Will they feel like the meaning of their work as possible game-changers in the history of art has been liquidated by serving as an ornament for the tech industry? Will they regret reproducing the lame ideas and characteristics that the postmodern generation expects of ‘millennials’ and youth culture? Do P-I artists sense that the flashy new theories that are grafted onto their experiments will quickly wane, the way the trends of the season do? I sense that the reason many P-I artists have been suspect of the term from the beginning is because it puts them in a difficult position of having to be parodies of themselves. Like good little boys and girls they did exactly what they were told by their teachers: "you’re a millennial, you’re supposed to be making art about the internet, identity, and X-Y-Z concepts." It is to their credit that they did their homework very well. But what happens when they grow up and rebel against a childish curriculum that has come to define their entire careers? Do they make small paintings in protest? Do they quit and become Yoga instructors? The carefully administered youth culture of the postmodernist generation has not been a means toward criticism, but rather a way in which the contemporary art institution prevents criticism of its curricula. This situation has rendered P-I a kitsch, rearguard movement, not a critical movement. Its acceptance of readymade cultural material illustrates its rearguard position, with the caveat that it attempts to think through such material and raise its own principles of organization to a higher consciousness. This is what criticism around the BB9 for instance has been unable to grasp. The contradictions reside in the art historical subject who take up new forms of media not to endorse them but to question them by implementing forms of representation that is in line with modern art's history. With criticism's marginalization also comes philistinism. A real investigation into the different artist's comprising this genre is forthcoming. Yet such investigations will also come too late.

With such ambivalence prevalent, younger critics mentioned in the survey, and many outside the survey have very understandably jumped ship, finding comfort in their own marginalization by seeking alternative models of criticism. It’s understandable to try and find alternative means, but the greater marginalization of critical culture will only leave art untouched and foster more missed opportunities. Contemporary art is a historically specific phenomenon defined by concrete social contradictions that appear as not concrete—one of those contradictions is that its sole defining characteristic is criticism and theory, while at the same time it is precisely critical theory that is not permitted. Contemporary art has been increasingly nailing itself into its own coffin, and post-internet criticism is merely the latest instance whereby the simultaneous necessity and absence of criticism is felt. Such contradiction implies that it is the critic, and not the artist or curator, who can make a wedge in the cultural status quo.

 

 

 

A Stopping Place

by Leanora Lange 

 

If you watch long enough, something becomes airborne.

So says the unnamed man in A Stopping Place, a solo theater piece written and performed by Stephen Powell premiering at Paradise Factory as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, which ran through July 3rd.

Indeed, many things find their way into the air in this piece. Some crash, some float, and some fall upwards, or so the man describes. Some vanish.

In A Stopping Place, the audience encounters a man struggling—to explain himself, to calm himself, to find a place to put down a red ball. This is a man of contradictions and reversals: he puffs up his ego, and he cowers in a corner; he burns with intensity, and he blows his whole situation off.

Reversal is at the heart of the work, which begins with an image of an alley and one of the sky. The man is in darkness and sings about the sun. Right about halfway through, the man stops telling (or stops avoiding the telling of) his story, and instead presents a story about a princess and a king. After finishing, he points out that some listeners may think that the story is about the princess and others may think it is about the king. At another point, the man claims that he is talking about loneliness or solitude, depending on the point of view.

Thankfully, the piece gives us more than two points of view. The number of problems, the number of histories, the number of moments of personal pain related to this man and others he has encountered are multiple. The number of players in his stories is multiple. And it seems this man is not only a victim.

“You won’t be satisfied until I rip myself open, will you?” he asks the audience, one of many rhetorical questions. Yet guts do not spill. Instead, the insider story, the details of this man’s pain, are left out.

The stage is delineated with torn cloth like bandages or sheets torn into strips to aid an escape. A few simple props adorn it along with an apparently very heavy chest that the man once took down a set of stairs but cannot remember carrying back up. The story of the chest is followed by a lay-person’s explication of traumatic repression: that the hardest things are ones you can’t remember until they come back when you don’t expect them.

As with other similar metaphors in the piece, one might wish that the chest story had been left without further explanation, so that the audience members might make the connection themselves between the story of the chest and the themes of the play, between themselves and this man. As it is, many of the themes of the piece are overexplained, and the traumatic is too easily discussed. Too much is told, and not enough is shown.

Once in a while, in the struggle to explain himself, the man runs toward an audience member, only to be sent back onto the stage with a jolt. The fourth wall was never there in this piece to begin with, but it seems the border of the stage is an invisible electric fence. This jolt is appreciated—indeed, the piece is at its most successful when the man’s struggle is shown physically instead of described or insinuated. Yet the connection with another person—so dearly sought after in the man’s narrative—is not made. A bridge is attempted, but not crossed. Instead of watching this unnamed man struggle to get out of wherever he is, the audience may be left wishing that another reversal could happen, and that we might be let in.

The text gets lost in rhetorical questions, cliché, and telling the audience what it is not about. It is at its best when fables and metaphors appear. One poetic foray into air conditioners was a treat that leaves one wishing for more of such surprises. A hint of concern about air pollution fit with the eco-consciousness of the Planet Connections Festivity.

Powell’s performance is sincere, delivered with a mix of candor and quiet concealment of someone you almost think you know. He looks directly into your eyes. While he spends most of the piece either wandering about or in unassuming and perhaps unconsidered contrapposto, some moments of more dynamic physical expression allow a peek into the potential of his artistic range, if only for a moment.

Clara Pagone’s direction revealed moments of clarity in a piece that otherwise easily gets bogged down.

The entire production team should be commended on their desire to grapple with as difficult a topic as trauma. However, this topic deserves a more mature and studied approach. The call for “No more traumas going forward” in the director’s note is naive and—for a show that claims that “no single person is unscathed by some form of violence, by neglect, by coercion”—contradictory. A certain degree of contradiction serves this show, but too much makes it look sloppy.

Many things crash down in this piece. Fortunately, a few fall upwards.

 
Photo courtesy of Clara Pagone

Photo courtesy of Clara Pagone

Kazuko Miyamoto and Béatrice Balcou: BREAKING HISTORICAL AMNESIA AND CRITICAL GALLERY PRACTICE

 

 

by Piero Bisello

 

“Being Japanese you are minimalist anyway,” the artist Kazuko Miyamoto once said; Christian Siekmeier, the director of her Berlin gallery Exile, finds this phrase problematic. He knows her so well, and for so long, that he knows why and in which context that slightly awkward self-categorisation came out. It is normal, he says, for people to stick a label on Kazuko’s work. The female minimalist artist working in the ‘70s, whose art has been forgotten for the sake of her male peers, might be an accurate interpretation, though an incomplete one.

Born in 1942 in Tokyo, Kazuko Miyamoto studied there until 1964, when she moved to New York. She found her first studio in 1968, a building on Hester Street in the Lower East Side where Sol LeWitt also worked. Meeting by chance during a fire alarm, the two artists became friends and she eventually took up the job of assisting him. Miyamoto was the first and probably the most consistent executioner of LeWitt’s pieces, especially in New York. As Siekmaier confirms, they had a generous artistic relationship, where one would advise the other on the directions to take.

An exhibition in Brussels at the state-funded art space ISELP focuses on this period of Kazuko Miyamoto’s career, linking it to the contemporary conceptualism of Brussels-based artist Béatrice Balcou. In the exhibition text, the curator Florence Cheval rightly mentions the practice of assisting another artist as politically controversial. The inevitable authority and inequality intrinsically present between the master and the server, between the assisted and the assistant, are delicate topics in art, a field that strives on an idealised concept of freedom. Even though the curatorial intentions of handling the topic in a critical way are present, the exhibition falls into the trap of presenting Miyamoto too narrowly, slightly inculcating the image of her as the conceptual forgotten artist, whose contribution was to add some “sensitive and corporal” elements to the male minimal art of the time. Considering the highly variegated practice of the artist, the show simply doesn’t help to unravel this complex position, or her individuality within history.

Most of Miyamoto’s works on display are linked to that period of the ‘70s: a “string construction,” where the artist forms geometrical patterns between the floor and the wall using ropes and nails— pieces from her series of wooden hat boxes. Even her later works seem to be selected to be coherent with an image of the artist: the iconic “Stunt” (1981), a photo of Miyamoto upside down in front of minimal sculptures—in this case, black and white photocopied abstract shapes from the late ‘80s. Besides, it is unclear whether Béatrice Balcou, a much younger artist whose practice often starts from the work of others, explicitly comments on what it means to assist in the art world. Her personal reconstructions of Miyamoto’s lost pieces and the replication of some of her most popular ones feel more like a polite homage to an icon from an older generation than a strong political gesture. Balcou appropriates Miyamoto’s art using her own conceptualist approach, dismissing important nuances in the complex art production of the New York artist.

The apparent objectivity of a categorisation, a hashtag dropped on somebody’s work, this is what Balcou didn’t manage to avoid with her exhibition. And yet, for her as much as for anybody else it is necessary to reduce complexity to understand, to view things from a consolidated, safe and controllable standpoint. The task of the artist (or art critic for that matter) is perhaps not to avoid categories, but rather to temporarily show that all of them are in fact ambiguous because all of them change before our eyes, regardless of us. In this regard, Balcou’s intervention on Miyamoto’s art is simply overly confident.

Coming back to Siekmeier, during a recent conversation at his Berlin gallery Exile, I learned there had been other moments in Miyamoto’s career to “handle with care.” For example, the artist was close to the feminist movement at least since the early ‘70s and yet her relationship with feminism was never straightforward. In 1980, she organised an exhibition with Ana Mendieta at A.I.R. gallery, a for-women-only artistic platform of which she’d been a member since the early ‘70s, to protest the scarce representation of non-American women at the gallery. She eventually left A.I.R. in 1983, following her closest friend Mendieta. Siekmeier has a clear opinion about what might have been Miyamoto’s reasons for the move: “A.I.R. became too limited for [Miyamoto], who also wanted to include male artists in the exhibition she organised.” Three years after, Miyamoto inaugurated her own space, Gallery Onetwentyeight, a gender-neutral, membership-free project. It is currently the longest operating art project space in the Lower East Side. Since its beginning, the focus of her activity as director has been to shape a community around the gallery. Over the years at Onetwentyeight, she and other curators have put forward a program that can be defined as informal and borderless, which, as Luca Cerizza writes, “rejects hierarchical divisions between unknown and celebrated artists.” This aspect is entirely lost in Béatrice Balcou’s exhibition, where instead of embracing the complexity, she promotes a clear image of Miyamoto.

Siekmeier emotionally acknowledges how much he owes Miyamoto for his own approach as a gallerist at Exile. He says that many of the principles of Onetwentyeight are embedded in Exile, which is not the kind of private for-profit gallery one would expect. There simply is an alternative business model there, perhaps oriented towards an alternative art market that doesn’t know what “bluechip” means. Whether or not one agrees with his taste, there is a special care in his selection, a political attention to show what is new without being recent, and presenting the non-recent in a very new way. Talking about art fairs, he says that “if they equal youth with age, they have nothing left but fetishism.” I believe fetishism and identification are, in this case, two sides of the same coin. It is from this stance that the work of the critical gallerist begins, a job of not only promoting and selling, but also of archiving, researching, surveying, hunting for forgotten stories, breaking the remembered ones.

I finally come to the historical amnesia you see in the title of this article. As an aid for critique, it is often used in the context where precise groups were left out of mainstream history. My point as argued throughout the article is that, even though a stress on identification can be fruitful in highlighting issues of inequality and prejudice, it can’t avoid the flattening and the counterproductive fixation of these identities as concepts. Categorisation will always fail us: by clinging to it, we risk to void the charge of our political action and morality. In this regard, a struggle against historical amnesia is not only an effort towards the inclusion of the historically excluded; it also means to be wary of other versions of it. I refer to the fast appropriation of things through labels that go from race to gender, passing by nationality, age groups and even artistic currents. As we have seen in the example of the critical gallery practice, definitions and terms can be kept withdrawn.

 

The exhibition runs from April 21 to July 2, 2016. More info: http://iselp.be/fr/expositions/beatrice-balcou-kazuko-miyamoto

 

 
Kazuko Miyamoto: Dance for my father, Gallery onetwentyeight, New York. exact date unknown. Photo by: Kazuko G. Stone.

Kazuko Miyamoto: Dance for my father, Gallery onetwentyeight, New York. exact date unknown. Photo by: Kazuko G. Stone.

Autechre: Elseq 1-5

by Bret Schneider

 

 

"It's quite kaleidoscopic really, 'cause you're learning as you're working with this sort of work."

- Autechre

 

For Autechre’s listeners, the music of Autechre is not only music, but a mode of thought or a state of mind. They are not seen merely as formalist musicians working within a style, but as accessing something behind music by possessing a superior consciousness of the tools that make and organize sound. Electronic music is a means to poke holes in the fabric of reified electronic music experience, and determine what, if anything, might lie beyond. Autechre excel at triggering caesura moments: brief moments of crisis in the temporality of a work in which the receiver has no clue what is going on, and is compelled towards a superior awareness of time. One of the singular successes of Autechre is the cultivation of listeners who are open to and even seek out fissures in the common values of music, and who listen at the critical threshold of what must be thought through but can't. It has long been considered music for the mind by loyal fans, critics, and even those who don’t like Autechre because it is apparently too cerebral. At the same time, its abstractness shields itself from thinking about it. Nearly no one, including critics and probably Autechre themselves, completely understand what’s going on in the listening experience. And it’s very rare, more or less absent, to read anything thoughtful about the music that comes to a conclusion about the work. Those who claim it is for the mind are the same ones who believe that thinking through it is impossible. It presents a contradiction: how can something be exclusively for the mind, but thwart thinking at the same time?

Even a new Autechre album is met with a healthy suspicion by the most loyal of fans, which is rare in a culture based on hyping everything under the sun as a new need. Their listeners recognize that their old work still demands thinking through, and new work is not necessarily needed. Still, a new album is, if anything, an opportunity for clarification of old work—both Autechre’s own work and electronic music as a historical medium. Elseq 1-5 (2016) is over four hours of material that ranges from dense clouds of synthetic noise (feed1) and slowly evolving timbral experiments (eastre) to iterative beat structures (acdwn2) and ‘casual’ minimal pieces in a dub style (pendulu casual). The new material is that which Autechre has explored for over the past decade, unifying tonality and percussion in novel ways, and thoroughly working through FM synthesis, a type of synthesis invented by John Chowning in the 70s wherein frequencies are modulated by other frequencies, which are modulated by other frequencies etc. It is notoriously complex to program, and considered an inexhaustible form of synthesis. It's not the only technique employed, but it exemplifies their process the best. The Board Recs and Elseq 1-5 distill the duo’s interest in FM even further, and situate them as something like FM artists. What they have been able to conjure out of FM synthesis is unique and entirely new, and sets it apart from, say, the way FM is employed as a cheap effect in something like the music of Skrillex.

So, while electronic musicians have herded around the modular synth revolution, Autechre have retreated further into what many consider the already exhausted confines of digital synthesis. But in stressing serious technical work they have still been able to perfect the sense of wonder and discovery that characterizes our best modular synth musicians. When working exclusively on the computer has become nearly taboo in the experimental electronic music community, to do so takes the form of a protest against cultural norms. It evinces a consistent aesthetic position with what they were doing over 20 years when they protested the anti-rave act by making completely non-repetitive music. Even the lengths of the Board Recs and Elseq 1-5 protest Pitchfork’s limiting review of Exai, namely their claim that is was too long. The review was reminiscent of Amadeus, when the king informed Mozart that there were too many notes in The Magic Flute! Autechre challenged complaints about a 2-hour album by manifesting a 9-hour series of works, and then a 4-hour album. Throughout the ‘00s, when everyone said they couldn’t and shouldn’t get any more austere, they answered with paradigms of hard-edged, transparent desolation that were the albums Confield, Draft 7.30, and Untilted. This was at a moment when electronic music had become a trend, and electronic musicians were picking up guitars and doing humanistic things in rock-electronic bands in an attempt to make electronic music palatable to those seeking more familiar listening experiences (e.g. Fennesz, Boards of Canada, Mountains, etc.). They thrive in the social space of doing what they aren’t supposed to do, and it leaves its mark on the music. The abstractness of their music is a result of their music not being supposed to exist in the first place. No mere formalists, the various protests have been a secret to Autechre’s formal innovations, and they are exceptional in the very literal sense by doing the things which are exceptions to the norm. The genuine curiosity of their forays sets them apart from being enfant terribles, however. Today, it is not the government that Autechre is protesting, but rather the uncritical cultural norms of a self-reproducing electronic music industry. The new bureaucracy that limits artistic exploration will be comprised of artists. Autechre is not marginalized because the music is too abstract, the music is abstract because it has chosen to be critical of reality.

Autechre’s alienation is an alienation from electronic music, but using the means of electronic music. They are generally regarded as purists, but what does this mean? Their interest in FM synthesis continues Brian Eno’s position that FM synthesis is important because it is the means by which he learns the most about sound. It positions synthesis as a process, and not an effect, and it underscores electronic music as a means of learning, not as a mere formalism or innovation within the domain of songwriting. This process is what I think most people are truly interested in when they listen to Autechre: they sense that the music is the result of an authentic immersion into a learning or discovery process, and not simply a desperate attempt at formality or being complex for complexity’s sake. Moreover, it's only being about itself—a world of sounds exclusively—means that all the reified cultural things most people are tired of hearing about are left out, and for a moment there is brief glimpse of something changing. Elseq 1-5 continues their sonorous inquiries, and the seeming informality of many of the experiments are as imperfect as they are compelling. Autechre are experimental in the truly avant-garde sense of the term, as their music isn’t listened to in the way a lot of music is listened to, but referred to by musicians who get ideas and are just as likely to put down their headphones and begin patching themselves as they are to be passively awestruck beholders. One doesn’t just listen to Autechre, one feels like they are learning something by listening, hence the esotericism of their audience: Autechre make music exclusively for people who make electronic music, luring lower-level music producers into a domain where they question the fundamental procedures of their practice. Artists making art for other artists has always been the hallmark of the avant-garde—in a society of ceaseless cultural discovery by the thousands of individuals who would not in other times produce music, there’s more of a tendency towards works that carry the possibility of teaching something about a given medium that one decides to work within. But because music listening is hindered by romantic ideals, this element is obscure: artists are often content to work within the limited confines of their own compositional intentions, instead of developing non-compositional strategies that allow the medium’s historical momentum to glimmer through.

An effect of this simultaneous immersion and obscurity that is often overlooked in their music is that structures are under a constant state of change, with no element of the music going untouched. “mesh cinereaL” is a good example of how sequences contort around themselves and slowly unfold and develop almost by undeveloping, eventually reaching a critical point when the piece completely changes direction of its own necessity; but not entirely. Most of the pieces on Elseq 1-5 seem to set up a formula and then try to wrest out of it—self-canceling algorithms. At a moment when electronic music has developed a massive industry around new tools, and producers often slap on new effects without really working through them, this takes on a nearly ethical, and not just formal, comportment. The history of difficult music has clung to the idea of leaving no aspect of the process or material untouched, because it exemplifies a certain philosophy of modernity that posits one can only work through, not around, aesthetic problems. Modernity fosters us with the tools for knowledge but those tools are also undermined by capitalism. For instance, in the 19th century language became suspected by poets to be not an inherently meaningful tool, but something that was bureaucratic, manipulative and needed to be reconceptualized. Language became an enemy of poetry in the same way new electronic tools might be considered an enemy of electronic music. The value of totally working through something implies moving beyond it. The completely electronic interests of Autechre are the precondition for moving beyond electronics, and this is why listeners hear something so alien in Autechre. It is at once the quintessential electronic music and not electronic music at all. There is very little for an artist to do other than push against the limits of the tools they have inherited. Autechre do this by pushing the limits of time-based modulation, one of the foundations of electronic music. And this is the case not because they cherish electronic music as it is, but rather because they attempt to break through it by working at the threshold of time-based music. Elseq 1-5 has a feeling of time just being sedimented into every sound, and the pieces short-circuit common electronic music values by implementing effects as a means. On most tracks this leads to a radically muddy sound that is the result of every element of it’s various tracks being under a constant state of change and modulation. Elseq's general sensibility, exemplified on “eastre”, is dull greyness: it props up no shiny production values but is rather an aesthetic of glittering misery. In sharing common characteristics with Harold Budd's "Dark Star" (1984), eastre puts forth an aesthetic of historical research that aims to recover forgotten possibilities in electronic music history.

On apparently such static droning pieces like the extended 22-minute “eastre,” the techniques appear as more transparent, perhaps due to its slower tempo. “eastre” is a profound piece that exudes a feeling of bad infinity, because it’s constant dynamic change in timbre is in tension with a sense that the timbral development also holds itself back from development. It is affectless electronic music at its best, and it is an exegesis of self-cancelation. 

The type of change itself belies a specific but enigmatic idea of what change in a more general sense should be: it’s not ‘progressive’ in the usual sense of the term regarding how music develops by narrativistic builds and releases, introductions and tidy resolutions etc. No sooner does it construct new forms than those same constructions are dismantled. If the listener feels immersed in a radical feeling of becoming, it is because the music aestheticizes simultaneous composition and decomposition, and it is often difficult to discern which is the more defining character. Such an aesthetic is a protest against not just reality, but what has become the mediocre reality of music: music is expected to offer a vision of whole life, while it’s technical capabilities imply the possibility of going far beyond closed totalities. Kitsch listening may seek wholeness of composition, but the type of listening Elseq 1-5 cultivates protests such values of wholesomeness. This is evident for instance in "Elyc6 0nset", which develops exclusively by decomposition and microsound fragmentation that descends into the infinitesimal sample time domain. What artists who have tried to continue Autechre often miss is this element of decomposition into a compellingly ambivalent sensibility about compositional structure, paired with a playful fascination about sound. Ambivalence is a starting point for new musical structures that take the form of an extended question mark. Testing given materials instead of using them as whole sound objects implies ambivalence resides not in an individual artist, but in the medium and industry of electronic music itself. Elseq 1-5 is not constructivist, its tracks are not hyper-edited, through-composed assemblages speckled with colorful effects, but are means towards disintegration of a special sort: disintegration in Autechre is unified, with usually subordinate fragments being a critical part of, and not merely an effect of the source material. It implies something akin to what psychologists have always suggested is a healthy quality in relationships: separate but together. At a historical moment when disintegration of all values is the hallmark of civilization, Elseq 1-5 offers an obscure vision of how meaningless disintegration can be meaningful disintegration.

 
 
 
 
 

Christian Jankowski Storms the House of Art

by Laurie Rojas

 

We look back at Christian Jankowski’s work as his first major curatorial project, Manifesta 11, opens in Zurich. 

 

Christian Jankowski is the art world’s court jester—he is a performer, comedian, artist, and trickster. His work seduces you with its charming wit and strikes hard with dark humor. His art explores social dynamics of popular and serious culture in an accessible way; it sometimes even grants us satisfaction. As a result, critics find themselves hard-pressed to say anything negative about his work, which questions the role of art in society. His works are also likable; that is, if you like being mocked. 

Jankowski’s work is often defined as performative and collaborative, but it is more genuinely a carefully crafted art of situations. The difficulty with Jankowski is that his works present two very different tendencies—one that affirms the world as we know it and one that seeks to crush its illusions—and all with a heavy dosage of humor. The self-contradictory character of his work produces a laughter—not a laughter of joy, but a perverse laughter. 

Take for example a recent presentation of Jankowski’s karaoke room installation, The Day We Met (2003), at the 2016 ArtCologne fair. During the opening one could walk into the room at the fair stand, where a video piece with the artist as protagonist plays to a Korean song, being sung live by an attendee to the fair. The “music video” showed Jankowski in a drama where he and his lover are going through some difficulties, namely that the parents seem to disapprove of the romantic relationship between this white European and their Korean daughter. The parents offer to pay him off (in good soap drama fashion) and Jankowski dramatically rejects the money. This causes troubles for the romance, but in the end they wind up together, even if not happily ever after. It didn’t seem to matter that we couldn’t understand the lyrics. A few other people in the room enjoyed themselves and applauded when the song ended. I quietly chuckled and walked out. This experience at an art fair is amusing, but leaves one wondering: where is the art? Is the piece a highly orchestrated metaphor for adaptation of art into mass entertainment? Unlikely, since Jankowski videos were distributed on a thousand karaoke machines around the world. It is the product of an artist that seeks to move art outside the art world, into mainstream culture. Instead of showing the limits of both he demonstrates how close they are to each other.

At another art fair presentation, Berlin Art Contemporary (abc) back in 2014, many of the artist’s neon works from his “Visitors” (2010 - ongoing) series were on display in the outdoor area before entering the fair’s halls. These quirky, large neon works are based on notes and doodles that visitors leave on exhibition guestbooks. They say things like “good very very good,” “on point” and “please stop you’re boring me to death.” One of these was also at Lisson Gallery’s booth (with the words “wow!” and a cartoony face doodle) which was paired with his “Review” piece in 2012. The artist asked critics to review this work and then sealed their reviews into bottles. The bottles were placed on the floor at the fair underneath framed photographs of them floating in New York’s East River. The photos documented a “Water Proof Test” to ensure, we can assume, that they were sealed shut; they also individually listed the name of the critic and the publication he or she most often writes for. The catch was that the critical value ascribed to his work was sealed shut, inaccessible. If someone were to open the bottles and disclose their content, the work would be ruined. As such, the distinction between review and artwork is collapsed. The criticism was made irrelevant at the same time that it became what substantiated and validated the work. Here we have both an affirmation and a denial of the relationship between artists and critics. Nobody seems to have found this disturbing.

The artist that exposes the underlying power structures, ideologies, dynamics that affect the presentation, circulation, display and reception of art is a favorite of art critics. The artist has done all the work for them, becoming the critic themselves, while the actual critic praises the artist in return, and has no disagreement with what is being said. Critics accept the grotesque caricature that has been made of them as fact. 

This is nowhere more obvious than in Jankowski’s Discourse News” (2012), where the artist uses art jargon in a regular newscast setting. We needed an artist to turn the focus back onto us to reveal the meaninglessness and incomprehensibility of art speak. “Discourse News” is less about art criticism, however, and more about the adoption of critic’s interpretive language by art press releases and publicity. As criticism becomes less viable as a financed profession, art PR (with the help of over-academicized curators) generates its own discourse to validate the art. 

There is a long history of artists trying to invalidate criticism, to remind us of art criticism’s irrelevance. Perhaps what passes for art criticism today should be invalidated. But Jankowski might not mean to invalidate the critic. Jankowski’s provocation goes against the grain of Joseph Kosuth’s idea that “conceptual art annexes the function of the critic and makes a middle man unnecessary” that was so central to conceptual art. By taking on the critic’s role, by being subversive of this legacy of conceptual art, Jankowski’s commentary on art criticism could actually be tasking art critics to be more than pawns of the art market and the culture industry at large. He throws the ball back in our court. 

The critic, however, is not the only art world character under scrutiny in Jankowski’s work; dealers, artists and curators are also subjected to parody and critique. In a way Jankowski’s works make a lot more sense when they are being shown in a commercial context. Several of his works thematize the luxury status of art works and the art market through parody or irony. The artist is aware of his own role and is not going to skirt it. Strip the Auctioneer—which does just that during a live auction in May 2009—explores the tension between art’s value and its economic (exchange) value in a burlesque theater where the auctioneer bids his clothing off all the way down to the hammer. The results lead to sculpture, photographs and a video. Whereas The Finest Art on Water at 2011 Frieze art fair brings in a bit of irony. Jankowski had a salesman try to sell a mega yacht and a speedboat (which was on display at the fair booth), but the catch was that there were two prices. You could buy the speedboat as a normal luxury item, or you could pay a lot more for it and buy it as an art work. The value of the former would decrease over time, while the value of the latter would increase over time. In a single grand gesture, the artist raised fundamental contradictions between value and exchange value as it is experienced in art. The distinction between a luxury commodity and an art commodity appears to be arbitrary, the only significant difference is the value we—humans—grant the art work. 

Jankowski’s subversive tactics, however, are harmless to the status quo. Even with such a bold statement, the work is not really able to be subversive, and may indicate that no art can ever truly be subversive. 

Even his recent solo exhibition at Contemporary Fine Arts, a veteran commercial art gallery in Berlin, was a saucily titled “retrospective.” It was more of a mid-career presentation of the curator of the Manifesta Biennial, which opens in Zurich this month. The show caused a bit of a stir because it was curated by a novice, the famous German actress Nina Hoss (who plays a German secret service agent in the TV series Homeland). The sensationalism around this decision was no doubt intended, but also belongs to Jankowski’s routine experiments with role reversals. (He once organized an exhibition at a German museum, where he made the security guard, the curator, and other staff change their roles as part of the exhibition.) During a press event before the opening night Jankowski confessed that the experience of passing on the responsibility to Hoss, an inexperienced curator, was liberating and had showed him how “the activity of curators can be overrated.” Jankowski’s choices often seem to have a therapeutic element. He seems to be constantly questioning what it means to be an artist, constantly reflecting on the role of art in society. It is as if Jankowski has stormed the house of art, finding it in ruins. He’s had to turn the critical act into an act of self-preservation (something all critics can recognize in themselves).  

Beside the works made since 1992, which were shown in two white cube rooms, Hoss selected 10 hours of Jankowski’s films to showcase in a black box theater. The exhibition prioritized an overview of Jankowski as a filmmaker, with the role of humor and subversion dominating this selection. The glibly clever film Telemistica (1999) a 22-minute-long film, shows five Italian TV fortune tellers answering Jankowski’s questions for his 1999 Venice Biennale presentation. In the video we hear Jankowski speaking in Italian, with subtitles on the screen, while we watch the fortune tellers “live” on TV. Jankowski asks the fortune tellers the following questions: Is this idea a good idea? Will I manage to make the work with little money and in the allotted time? Will it look good and be presented well? Will the public like the work? And finally, will I be happy with my work? The questions were, unsurprisingly, answered positively and we were amused by the comical situation. Jankowski made a self-referential work, whose final product is based on the discussion with fortune tellers. We know better than to believe in what is being said—the fortune tellers’ “reading” of the cards—but we still go along with the game. The artist did in fact go on to become “a success” after all. But is he happy? Did the promise of happiness actually ever come? 

The film begs the questions: What makes artworks good, and what makes an idea good? The answer, today, is that somebody says the artwork is good. The art world (market) creates its own self-fulfilling prophecy. It is in the interest of the “fortune teller” to give positive feedback, to encourage the artist in his pursuit of his passion, to tell him he is going to succeed. It is in the interest of the artist to be told his artwork is good, that the public will like it, and that he will succeed. And doesn’t everybody want to hear an abstract authority say: you will succeed? Why do we laugh at this situation, why do we laugh at the self-serving gesture?

Jankowski might have merely intended to explore his ambivalence about participating in the Venice Biennale, to show his self-doubt to his audience while exposing the twisted desire fulfilled by television fortune tellers. But he begins to scratch at the surface of the problems raised by the mass appeal of television programming and the influence esoteric knowledge has on its audience (even when the audience knows better). At the same time, he taps into the idea that art is another component of the culture industry, which he explores much more directly in other works. 

Over the years Jankowski continued to assimilate mediums of popular culture. In Crying for the March of Humanity, (2012) a 26-minute-long video, he recreates an episode of a Mexican telenovela by replacing all the dialogue with crying. Jankowski takes the title from the world’s largest mural, “La Marcha de la Humanidad en la Tierra y hacia el Cosmos” ("The March of Humanity on Earth and Toward the Cosmos") (1965-1971), by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siquieros. The scenes and the acting are as believable as telenovelas can be, but the primary reaction to this absurd theater is again laughter, a cold indifferent laughter. We might find it humorous to see so many men crying, sobbing really—which we rarely see on television anyways. There is gratification in the experience of watching these people cry, suffer amidst banal activities; it is comical. It matters little whether the conflicts are merely a sham; the goal is not empathy, their tragic condition is there for our viewing pleasure, and we are allowed to indulge in it whether the conflict is resolvable or not. The interesting thing here is this ambivalence, which straddles the line between accommodation and critique. But why is so much crying causing such apathetic gratification? We are indulging in sadism. 

It’s hard to tell if Jankowski is being dead serious or seriously funny. On the one hand the reference to Siquiero’s work seems to beg a comparison, and yet the struggle “of humanity towards the cosmos” as depicted in the mural is far from being embodied in the “narrative” of the film. So, is the comparison to be read negatively, to highlight the degree to which humanity has abandoned its great historical vision in favor of immediately satisfying mass entertainment? Is the message of the film a critique of the appeal of mass entertainment, of how the petty misery of these characters has helped suppress the underlying reasons for humanity’s suffering? No. Jankowski just wants to blur the boundary between popular culture and serious art. He is concerned that art does not have a mass social basis or appeal. 

And yet Jankowski is raising intellectual problems through assimilating mass media, which tends to avoid said problems in favor of producing the highest possible impact on its audience. Mass media tends to both stress and be driven by the effect on the viewer—sensuous stimuli, entertainment and sensationalism—at the expense of meaningfulness. But because Jankowski is making “art” we project a great deal of meaningfulness back into his work. The question is why Jankowski continues to use mass media as a vehicle for his art. It is because it is accessible and we find comfort in the recognizable. 

We laugh at Jankowski’s films because we recognize ourselves in them, and because we consider ourselves clever for recognizing the absurdity of the art world and the culture industry—both of which are indistinguishable in most of Jankowski’s work. But involved in this laughter is the recognition of regression in viewing (experiencing) television and possibly art. Our pathologies appear rather institutionalized, desensitized, and to a great extent socialized, rationalized. We are drawn in to a tacit acceptance of absurdity, of our general tragic, inescapable, miserable condition; the irrational is accepted into the rational world.

Like the medieval court jester, Jankowski can mock the status quo without penalty, but also without consequence. Jankowski keeps trying to grapple with the problematic relationship art has to society even though he cannot offer a solution. He can no more change the status of art as a commodity to be consumed by the art market via his wry commentary than aspiring art critics change the fact that all critique is going to be immediately subordinated to the art market. The assimilation of art into the culture industry is recognized and dealt with by many artists in the post-war period: there is Warhol’s approach, Beuys’ approach, Koons’ approach, and Hans Haacke’s approach. Critics can take a lesson from these artists-as-critics. Art is compromised, it lacks consequence, that’s an inescapable fact. That hasn’t stopped artists, nor should it stop critics who fear being inconsequential, to challenge that conformism. Art in modern times, under late capitalism, is a contradictory symptom of this society, it is necessary and undermined, it is developed as it is constrained, it is “avant-garde” (critically and historically conscious), and it is immediately absorbed into the culture industry. These are the inescapable problems of art and they are not resolvable by art alone. Jankowski’s work allows us to recognize this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Christian Jankowski, The Day We Met (2003).

Christian Jankowski, The Day We Met (2003).

 
Christian Jankowski, Please Stop You're Boring Me to Death (2012) from the series “Visitors.” 

Christian Jankowski, Please Stop You're Boring Me to Death (2012) from the series “Visitors.” 

 
Christian Jankowski, installation view Discourse News (2012). 

Christian Jankowski, installation view Discourse News (2012). 

 
Christian Jankowski, Strip the Auctioner (2009).

Christian Jankowski, Strip the Auctioner (2009).

 

Christian Jankowski, installation view of Telemistica (1999).

 
Christian Jankowski, installation view of Crying for the March of Humanity (2012).

Christian Jankowski, installation view of Crying for the March of Humanity (2012).

 

Christian Jankowski poses in front of Manifesta's Pavilion of Reflections on Lake Zurich.