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.

"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.

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.

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.

 

"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." 

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.

 
 
 
 
 

Joseph Bertolozzi: Tower Music

by Adam Rothbarth

 

Each leg of the Eiffel Tower rests on four 2-meter concrete slabs, each of which support blocks of limestone on which the foundations for the ironwork of the structure rest. Each foundation—or “shoe,” in architectural terms—is anchored to the limestone by pairs of 25-foot long, 4-inch wide bolts. The work required for the structure was excruciating, both in terms of labor and architectural planning; it is believed that the drawing office produced over 3,600 detailed drawings of the plans and that their execution required over 18,000 different parts, conjoined by about 2.5 million rivets. The structure contains three lifts for visitors who choose not to climb the stairs to reach the top. The dimensions of the wrought iron lattice tower are 324-meters tall by 125-meters wide on each side, making it the tallest structure in Paris. Construction began on January 28, 1887 and ended on March 15, 1889, just in time for its March 31st unveiling as the entrance to the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair). The tower took the labor of around 300 workers, not including those who manufactured and transported the iron and stone. One person died during its construction. 
 
The tower was the vision of Gustave Eiffel, the French engineer and architect. When he presented his initial plans in 1885, he indicated that the tower’s possibility was “prepared by the great scientific movement of the eighteenth century and by the Revolution of 1789, to which this monument will be built as an expression of France’s gratitude.” He likened the tower to the pyramids and pointed out the fact that it would be the tallest structure ever built on the planet. Artists in the 19th century, however—namely Guy de Maupassant, Charles Gounoud, and Jules Massenet—actually petitioned against the tower being built, envisioning the final product as “a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years… we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”
 
With Tower Music (2016) composer and organist Joseph Bertolozzi seeks to give voice to the magnificent tower, turning it into a musical instrument, allowing it to speak through his percussion instruments and production techniques. These instruments include all sorts of mallets, from wooden to latex, as well as invented instruments, such as a tree stump hanging from cables and necklaces on a turning wheel. Using these instruments, Bertolozzi played rhythms on numerous points on the structure, evoking the many tensions and timbres that are hidden within it. The composer does not seem to be banging completely at random, however; one scene from the record’s promotional video shows him marking a B-flat on an iron beam, which exposes an interesting aspect of his approach. The end of the video shows Bertolozzi matching the pitches of an ambulance or police car on a pitch pipe, evidencing the aesthetic goal of this project: to discern and organize the sensual dimensions of the institutions of capital. 

This is where the record becomes problematic, however, because while on the surface it seems as if he is attempting to continue or critique the serious percussion works of John Cage or Steve Reich—whose own works are formally problematic in various ways—the idea of this project in itself is actually rather opaque. Cage attempted to use both existing and invented “instruments,” from radios to prepared pianos, on their own terms, to investigate their own qualities in space and time. Tower Music wants to walk that path; however, in post-production, it selects the road toward Aphex Twin instead, opting for more processed and less (seemingly) autonomous organizational methods. In this sense Bertolozzi does seem to be attempting to find a solution for the informality of the works of Cage and others; however, the problem is the formal structures into which he presses these fantastic sounds.

The sounds of the tower, both percussed and ambient, are the most interesting dimensions of this project; yet, they are also what become the most compromised through Bertolozzi’s treatment of them. In another video Bertolozzi discusses the microtonal aspects of the iron beams and rails, addressing the fact that although a specific rail may sound most like an A or an F, that each tone carries a plethora of overtones within it, and that in hitting multiple notes simultaneously, each evokes different properties from the other. Here Bertolozzi has stumbled onto something nuanced about the particularity of the Eiffel Tower. To actually study the tower's musical properties immanently, however, Tower Music would have needed to further interrogate these qualities and to more thoroughly disclose the specificity of the actual conditions of the tower through composition. In theory, perhaps an album of field recordings from the Eiffel Tower would better achieve his goal of evoking the soul of the tower; this hypothetical record would simply exhibit the sounds he has extracted, which are themselves unique achievements. This would be problematic, though, in that they would be essentially formless, and would fall more into the category of ethnomusicological field recording than composition. 
 
“The Harp That Pierced the Sky” is a compelling moment on the album, because it allows the tones to breathe and move more autonomously through time, giving the listener a chance to actually hear the sounds of the tower. Similarly, the ambiance of “Evening Harmonies” gives impressions of the tower after hours, as it continues to settle into the Earth, creaking and moaning, animals scurrying about its beams and walkways. However, other tracks, such as “Glass Floor Rhythms” and “A Thousand Feet of Sound,” are more aggressively focused on rhythm and post-production than the sounds of the tower itself. Although it is obvious that "Ironworks" is meant to sound like aestheticized labor, a musical version of what one may have heard wafting from the tower's construction site in 1889, its theatricality and drive make it seem like a glitchy film score for a neo-noir or techno-thriller.

The postmodern composer that comes to mind when thinking about Bertolozzi is music’s other protagonist of musical architecture, Iannis Xenakis. Using equations and architectural ratios, Xenakis composed music using the mathematical process of planning and creating structures, turning the internal rationality of capital against itself. It was either to fulfill the needs or to react against the needs of late capital that the various schools of post-war architectural science were developed, and Xenakis, a student of the latter, applied these theories to his music. It was through his relationship to these structures and the process of their creation that he was able to contribute to—and critique—the post-World War II outbreak of formal responses to atonality.

Instead of evoking and investigating the reason or history of the Eiffel Tower, Bertalozzi simply turns it into another musical instrument. Through his unveiling of the sounds and tensions of the structure, he is also validating the labor that created it, which, too, is concealed within. With each shimmering tone and bellowing pitch that Bertalozzi pulls from the structure, the listener is simultaneously hearing the cries of the revolutionaries of 1789 and the grunts and sighs of the laborers that built the tower. Yet all we really hear are the beats. History is lost through the fetishization of the structure, which actually has no import whatsoever in this record, becoming simply another tool of production; if one listened to these compositions without knowing their background, the instrument of their creation may as well be the St. Louis Arch, Brandenburger Tor, or the Statue of Liberty.

 

 Workers installing lights on the tower.

Workers installing lights on the tower.

 
 Frank Palaia,  Joseph Bertolozzi and Joe Popp recording the Eiffel Tower ,   2016. 

Frank Palaia, Joseph Bertolozzi and Joe Popp recording the Eiffel Tower, 2016. 

Oneohtrix Point Never: Garden of Delete

by Bret Schneider

 

Oneohtrix Point Never is the highest expression of the art of middlebrow pastiche. His earlier experiments emerged onto a languishing stage of electronic music, revitalizing it with a signature amalgamation of mid-century avant-garde modernism and hip contemporary retro-futurism that has nothing directly to do with such music. When electronic musicians had withdrawn into a tightly focused academic electronic music research, OPN merged a strain of kosmische that had lineages to Stockhausen with contemporary cultural visions. His reliance on retro synths cemented his reputation as some sort of savior amongst a generation of electronic musicians weened on mannered computer glitches. And yet OPN seemed discontent with this framework. Garden of Delete takes him further away from those kosmische works of e.g. Returnal, and deeper into his recent focus on the modular compositional ideas explored in R+7. By ‘modular’ I don’t mean modular synth music, but rather a type of arranging and juxtaposing blocks of disparate sound. A musicologist remarked to me that Garden of Delete was ‘modern’ in that it incorporated a lot of discordant styles into coherent works, for instance juxtaposing delicate tonal phrases with metal shredding. I retorted that this was the definition of pastiche. Garden of Delete sits ambiguously in this place between slapstick pastiche and serious modernism.

It is as if someone said to Lopatin back in 2010 that his works were unformed and too undefined, criticisms to which he responded with hyper-articulated arrangements. Considering Lopatin’s proximity to contemporary art, which has since the mid-‘00s developed a strain of neo-modernism, this critique is not difficult to imagine. If formlessness seemed ‘unserious’ to the type of academic listening audience that also valued OPN’s earlier work, then he was earnestly interested on changing this sensibility by perfecting a counter-practice of editing and arranging in order to ‘get serious.’ But as so often happens with contemporary art and music, the attempt to be more serious usually ends up undermining itself. This shift is also symptomatic of a condition all-too-familiar amongst experimental music, where primal and playful work is academically tamed and plastered with a shallow veneer of profundity and social substance (Florian Hecker is a good example of this).

The problem with this type of pastiche modernism is that it becomes too calculated. Everything is in its right place, but ultimately feels wrong. The juxtaposing of different types of sound material has its roots in surrealism, which long ago became a mannerism, or even an aesthetic pathology. Today such practices lack the philosophical and psychological substance, which means that the work comes off as opportunist towards culture. It argues that one can have it all. But is that really true? The incorporation of so many different tropes also has the opposite effect of declaring the emptiness of each, and with it the assumption that the various tropes that make up culture are vacuous. This can lead to a critical listening experience for listeners sick of the ever-same who seek in art an indictment of culture. But for the majority who don't share this value, they find in such arrangements mere justification for the ever-same. Garden of Delete is not unlike so many pop music projects that appropriate various tropes in order to appeal to as wide a base as possible, the difference residing in the obscure subcultural type of tropes that OPN uses. And the listener is interested for a moment in the display of his cabinet of aural curiosities. But it remains to be seen whether or not these are merely inessential novelties, or lastingly compelling works that meaningfully synthesize the materials any given artist must necessarily work with. Usually works of this kind are momentarily very exciting, but wane over the long-term because cultural values shift—what was once subcultural becomes hip, etc. The incorporation of external tropes such as the pseudo-sci-fi, retro-futurist, social critique or whatever one might call such material only reinforces the non-musical and non-lasting aspects of OPN, bringing it closer to kitsch because it doesn’t clarify its own procedures and instead obscures them. Avant-garde art has a way of educating its listeners, provoking the feeling that artworks may be simple or primitive, but form the basis for those interested to build off of it, and makes art a social project. The other type of art makes pretense to the autonomy of the individual whose procedures and knowledge are transcendent, opaque, and cannot be understood in ensuing practices. What true avant-garde music since the mid-century has been troubled by are these compositional habits revolving around modernist tropes whose development is arrested. Lesser music has since then been content to simply use such tropes unchanged in order to justify its supposed seriousness. All truly new music since then has tried to break habit in one way or another, and expose such tropes as empty. OPN has been a leading figure in this regard in many ways: his earlier work’s free informal quality drew attention to the well-mannered new music being done elsewhere, pointing to a way out without being able to fulfill it.

Regarding the kitsch listening experience that invites one to lazily project whatever they want onto it, one may scoff at such a ‘traditional’ category that lacks relevance in a contemporary culture that has long since supposedly broken down those barriers. But it’s nevertheless accurate: OPN’s music appeals only to the informed, growing in numbers though they seem to be. No matter how commonplace his music may aim to be, it doesn’t connect with the ‘masses’ as it might be supposed, but can only be regarded by them as ‘art music’ for an initiated avant-garde that hardly exists, and is anxious to leave its history in the dustbin. Or, more concretely, the tropes that are brought in to make the album more accessible—for instance the NES videogame soundtrack quality—actually serves the purpose of further alienating what remains of the supposedly ‘uncultured’ masses who still look to art for something more than commonplace experience. The avant-garde and the masses constantly pass each other like ships in an endless fog. For this reason OPN is the quintessential middlebrow artist. Such music appeals to the ubiquity of the upper-middle class dilettante that is educated enough about the historical avant-garde to justify ‘new’ art, but doesn’t really take it seriously as an indictment of society; it pretends to radically synthesize kitsch and avant-garde aesthetics, but doesn’t really fulfill the aims of either; it appeals to those who want to be ‘in the know’, but don’t want to do the work of thinking required by aesthetics who need to reproduce a culture that promises change without actually changing it. OPN is the go-to musician that museums like MoMa lazily utilize to promote new avant-garde music to the plebes, but nothing about the music is comprehended except that it is ‘cool.' Middlebrow art like this has long since become a commonplace in the high-class trash of the status quo, and try as one might to escape this hellish condition, there’s little that one exceptionally talented artist like OPN can do to break the spell. One won’t compose their way out of lazy listening practices. But OPN does everything a single artist can do to break the habit.

Nevertheless, the middle-brow has long been a damning label that itself abandoned the type of historical consciousness it perceived in avant-garde art. What was left out of the middle-brow sociological analysis was its historical conclusion—that the masses weren’t merely culture herds, but such herding around art indicated a real need for experience without, however, its fulfillment. While a sociological theory of art is limited in its lack of historical consciousness, it has clarified how certain social orders catalyze certain types of art in order to continue their own ends. Art in the era of the status quo requires just enough avant-gardism to reproduce culture, but not enough to break its own spell.

Garden of Delete seems to struggle against these conditions that gave it voice to begin with, as if saying, ‘just enough is not enough.’ More importantly, the audience for this music, in part, truly desires change, but are inevitably stuck with ambiguous music like Garden of Delete. For this reason alone it is potentially exceptional. But it is specifically exceptionality that middle-brow art has made a habit of trading in for acceptability. Garden of Delete can be considered either hyper-aware of this dismal condition of every ‘wild’ change quickly becoming repetition within status quo culture, or merely its perpetuation. In this situation the listening of OPN is like listening to the sounds of hell: the status quo where everything seems to change but nothing really changes. The ultimate irony of being the best example of middlebrow art is that the very category of status quo culture permits no values of the future or of change. It is forever changeless in its reformations and reconfigurations.

 
 

Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool

by Adam Rothbarth

 

Radiohead’s music is about alienation. In their early records their project was oriented at exploring social alienation via technology; OK Computer (1997) was about Thom Yorke’s car accident and the question of the increasing role of technology in social life, and Kid A (2000), it is speculated, refers to cloning, although the program of the record is hard to pin down because of Yorke’s free associative lyrics. Both of these records explored the relationship between man and machine via the blending of acoustic and electronic elements during the recording process, resulting in two of the more coherent postmodern pop albums in recent memory. Indeed, during this period Radiohead’s criticism of technology was only possible through a thoroughly integrated approach to both songwriting and advertising that, ironically, involved a mastery of technology. They used instruments new to popular music, played guitars in ways not previously done in rock n’ roll, appropriated elements from techno and dance in an arguably successful way, and even took a critical approach to the technology of album releases; Kid A, emerging during the portentous moment of Napster and Kazaa, was one of the first major album leaks that was cultishly sought through these programs by fans.

With Hail to the Thief (2003), the band’s politics began to take a more concrete lyrical dimension: the album was unquestionably meant to criticize George W. Bush’s policies after 9/11. From the album cover depicting commodity-words buried in the ground to the texts of the songs (“We don’t really want a monster taking over/Tip toeing, tying down/We don’t want the loonies taking over/Tip toeing, tying down our arms”), Radiohead began to turn the corner from critique of empirical reality via musical form to criticism of empirical reality via appearance-level thematic opposition. Hail to the Thief was still on many levels a successful record despite the increasing imbalance between theme, text, and music, however, because it continued to explore the intersection of electronic and acoustic rock n’ roll, appearing to hold the fort on the level of form. The band also utilized musical space and tension creatively on this record, making it a dense and potent statement in spite of its political program. 

The band’s “aversions” to technology, Bush-era politics, and the commodification of music continue to successfully convince fans that they are luddites; however, in the moment of In Rainbows’s (2007) pay-what-you-want release strategy, Radiohead officially become pop culture’s most successful manipulators of technology and mass media. With the release of In Rainbows, the music of Radiohead was no longer consumed, but, rather, listeners consumed the process of buying it and, secondarily, the band’s political ideology. The music of In Rainbows was generally good, but it has certainly been proven less impactful over the past nine years than the method of its release.

As rumors of an impending record crescendoed a few weeks ago, Radiohead disappeared from the internet. They deleted their Twitter and Facebook posts and their website went pitch-white as its HTML opacity settings decreased to 0% over the course of a few hours. This time their gimmick appeared as a criticism of social media, and those convinced of their luddite-ism viewed the unfolding as some sort of triumph, although the purported meaning and ramifications of this triumph were essentially as opaque and undialectical as their Bush-era oppositionalism. Yet, as singles from the record started to appear, the band again revealed themselves to be expertly pressing social media into service, driving those that saw themselves in solidarity with the band’s luddite-ness to, strangely, flock to social media and the internet even more regularly in hopes that news of the album would appear. Yet again, their ideology became not only free advertising, but a commodity for consumption.  

A Moon Shaped Pool was released on May 8, 2016—Mother’s Day—to an absolute fever pitch, turning one commercial holiday into another as men and women ecstatically transitioned from celebrating their matriarchs to celebrating a new Radiohead record. The album, as pointed out by many concerning its single “Burn The Witch” days earlier, is overwrought with mercurial political allegories and unclear metaphors about romantic relationships and social reality. Pitchfork even published an above-the-fold article the following day claiming to have deciphered the song’s politics. If they had actually achieved this, it would have been an impressive feat for the publication; however, it raised more questions than it answered, especially regarding the seemingly incomprehensible cryptic resistance to modern life by the band. Due to the ambiguity with which Radiohead presents their program, it makes sense that listeners and critics connect with its false consciousness, mistaking the band's most symptomatic qualities for stoic critique. All this ambiguity accomplishes, though, is that it eventually congeals into an artistic tarp onto which the public may project their own pathologies and social opinions.

Fulfilling the promises of Hail to the Thief, their focus has left musical form and has centered on lyrics and political messages, leaving the music feeling secondary and inert, a tepid amalgamation of some of their earlier rock tendencies, Jonny Greenwood’s film scoring techniques, and Yorke’s interests in electronic music. Most of the songs on this record revolve around basic chord structures and repetitive phrases, relying on the additive techniques that the band cleverly applies to them, not unlike the minimalist music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. The strings in “Glass Eyes” and at the end of the otherwise enchanting (although repetitive) “Daydreaming” are nothing short of melodramatic, oriented specifically at evoking melancholy or uneasiness from the listener. “Identikit” is probably the most compelling song on the record in terms of production and lyrics, but it, too, suffers from pushing its bass ostinatos way too far. Each of the songs on this record, in one way or another, deteriorate in time by putting too much weight on the labor of motifs, whether chord progressions, guitar/bass ostinatos, or piano arpeggiations. Gone are the days of indecipherable meters (“Pyramid Song”), otherworldly tones (“Treefingers”), a focus on the mastery of recording and studio production (“Reckoner,” “There There”) and general postmodern weirdness (“Life in a Glass House,” “The National Anthem”). With A Moon Shaped Pool the band has officially transitioned from ostensible aesthetic activity to political pseudo-activity. The tension and drama has all but left their music, leaving pop song skeletons in their wake to be dressed up in the band’s best post-production techniques and, even more glaringly, their political- and relationship-oriented text. 

There are moments when the record’s weaknesses are its strengths, but those moments get lost in the general obscurity of the album as a whole. “Ful Stop” makes fine use of its Krautrock-inspired drum and bass lines, and the song’s use of vocal lines as instruments about halfway in is interesting as a wall-of-sound technique. “Burn The Witch” utilizes integrated, dissonant strings—one aspect of the record’s composition that does evidence a learned and imaginative approach to orchestration and string technique—and a passable sense of tension that longingly gestures back to their earlier works. But, on the whole, these moments are in the minority, and lose their critical capacity in context with the rest of the album.  

With A Moon Shaped Pool Radiohead has finally found their footing in the ranks of contemporary political music, pressing ever onwards against injustice and what they perceive to be bad politics, orienting their work increasingly at cryptic resistance and melodrama rather than continuing their earlier tendency toward critical, integrated music. In their music video for “Daydreaming,” Yorke wanders through a labyrinth of rooms, buildings, and bucolic terrains, clearly in a dream logic. In one scene, he emerges from a door and looks around. Seeing a woman, he quickly escapes back through the same door. Eventually he emerges from the enigmatic series of settings into a mountainous tundra. Climbing up the side of a mountain, Yorke finally finds solace in a cave. It is a romantic scene, and as he lies down next to a fire and goes to sleep, one feels comforted by his having finally escaped the world. But the point isn’t to escape the world; the point is to change it. 

 Cover of  A Moon Shaped Pool .

Cover of A Moon Shaped Pool.

 

The People v. O.J. Simpson

by Pam C. Nogales C.

 

You wanna make this a black thing. But I’m not black, I’m O.J.”

First, a disclaimer: This show is not about O.J. Simpson. Unsurprising to anyone familiar with the case, since the trial was hardly about the defendant’s guilt or innocence. Rather, as The People v. O.J. Simpson artfully pieces together, in the 1990s, O.J.’s acquittal provided the semblance of racial justice by eliciting a feeling of victory through the spectacle of a televised trial. This dose of self-delusion was delivered in bleak times in America (especially brutal if you were poor and black). Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne—featured in the show as the wealthy, but culturally-conscious, New Yorker—wrote in 1997 that the O.J. trial had something for everyone: “love, lust, lies, hate, fame, wealth… the bloodiest of bloody knife-slashing homicides,” and “all the justice that money can buy.” Indeed, it was all the justice a black man in America could buy in 1994—if he could afford the price. However, The People v. O.J. Simpson suggests that there may have been a greater cost: this judicial victory was gained by peddling a false promise of redemption to working black Americans. 

The People v. O.J. Simpson opens with images of the Los Angeles race riots of 1992. This six-day long episode of looting and deadly violence was sparked by the acquittal of three LAPD officers charged with the use of excessive force against Rodney King, a young black man from South Central L.A.  The case gained international attention when the now infamous recording of King’s beating was televised before the tribunal of mass society. When, on April 29, a suburban, all-white jury acquitted the four officers of the charges, South Central L.A. immediately exploded into unrest. News outlets broadcasted near continuous coverage of the riots. And smaller but similar outbreaks took place in other cities throughout the U.S. After the riots, the LAPD was subject to civil inquiry, leading to the forced resignation of the then chief of police Daryl Gates. The police department sacrificed one of its own and the whole thing was put to rest. But then there was O.J.

“Juice” or as he was known to his mother, Orenthal James Simpson, grew up poor in the housing projects of Potrero Hill, San Francisco. Like many black kids in the projects, he’d joined a street gang and was briefly incarcerated. However, unlike the rest, he excelled at track and football in high school and got an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California (USC). In 1968, O.J. won the most prestigious individual award in college football, the Heisman trophy—he had successfully escaped the projects. Over the next decades, O.J. charmed his way into mainstream (read, white) American culture. His appeal across racial lines made him one of the most beloved athletes of his generation, and an especially valuable celebrity endorsement. Without a doubt, if there was one black man that had made it in America, it was O.J. Simpson. 

How then, in 1994, did O.J. become the posterchild for “racial justice” against the LAPD? How did his acquittal convincingly offer any sense of hope to black people across America? This feat in legerdemain was accomplished by the lead attorney on O.J.’s defense team: the always charming and entertaining Johnnie Cochran, portrayed in the show by Courtney Vance, at his best.  

If there is a lead character in this show worthy of the name, it’s Johnnie Cochran. The show could easily have been called “The People v. Johnnie.” While Bobby Shapiro—the original lead attorney on the O.J. case—was the architect of the defense strategy (mainly, blame the LAPD for being blinded by racism) this plan was just an idea without Johnnie’s aggressive execution and personal appeal to a “downtown” jury (read, a largely black jury). While Shapiro thought he could get the prosecution to plead out O.J. to manslaughter, it was Johnnie who was gunning for a public trial.

Robert Shapiro: The race card is sticking, and Johnny equals LAPD injustice. And Gil [Garcetti, LA county’s District Attorney] doesn’t want to see the city burn down, again.  (Episode 4)

Johnnie’s claim to black authenticity, however, could hardly be convincing without significant edits to the story of O.J., ‘the black man.’ Here Johnnie is at his best as the self-appointed sectary of the race, an example—and by extension, an inspiration. The show does well to highlight these 1990s black clichés and their grip on popular imagination with some humor. Simpson was an “imperfect vessel,” as Dale Cochran delicately put it, but Johnnie successfully remade Simpson in his image: a strong black man in a hostile world. In a brilliant strategic move by the defense team, Cochran led the remodeling of Simpson’s mansion in Brentwood before the jury walk-through. Down went the photographs of scantly-clad white women and paintings of white faces, up went the African artifacts, photographs of happy black children—apparently not O.J.’s—and the pièce de résistance: the hanging portrait of the son with the black family matriarch, momma in her Sunday best. Content with the changes, Johnnie quips, “I love me some blackness.” Most telling among these edits was the introduction of the 1963 Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges walking to class escorted by Federal Marshals, The Problem We All Live With—an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement. “It’s on loan,” says Johnnie, “from the Cochran collection.”

In the initial meetings between Simpson and Cochran, Johnnie has to convince his client that the best defense his money can buy is that of a wronged black man against the LAPD. But before his arrest in 1994, O.J. was living the highlife in Brentwood, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Los Angeles, hitting the links and sharing Sunday brunch with his rich buddies, while playing uncle to Bobby Kardashian’s band of brats (“K-A-R-D-A-S-H-I-A-N!”). All this, while still having had time to host tennis matches for the LAPD. People called him “the mayor of Brentwood.” No wonder Simpson found a race-based defense an odd fit. “You wanna make this a black thing,” he tells Johnnie, “but I’m not black, I’m O.J.” 

Cochran, a star member of the black middle class, reminds O.J. that he is an inspiration for black people, a role model. To convince O.J., Johnnie describes a time in his life when he’d reached rock bottom. He tells Simpson how he was facing a failing career, disillusioned in the aftermath of a divorce, coping with his situation by drinking too much and staying in bed feeling sorry for himself. Just then, Jonnie tells O.J., he fixed his eyes one of Simpson’s football games on TV where O.J.’s tenacity on the field pushed him to jumpstart his life: “You were an inspiration,” on and off the field, adds Johnnie, 

Johnnie: …when they cut again to the commercial, there you were again. Leaping through the airport for Hertz, breaking another barrier with charisma, humor, intelligence. A black man, as the public face for one of the world’s biggest corporations.

While Johnnie was down and out, O.J. ran to a touchdown. While Johnnie struggled to pull himself together, O.J. was the smiling black face of corporate America. “We lost that day,” O.J. reminds him. “I don’t remember that,” he tells him. That day on the field, “it was like you were running for me.” Visibly moved but maintaining his conviction, Johnnie clasps O.J.’s hands between his palms, looks deeply into his client’s eyes and delivers the last line of his pep talk, “This right here—this right here, O.J. Simpson, is the run of your life.”

It would be too easy to crucify Cochran as a charlatan. The entire defense might be dismissed as a sham if it weren’t for the undeniable fact that LAPD ranks were populated by authoritarian, racist cops who, in 1992, happened to show the world just how much they could flex their muscles with impunity. This was the kernel of truth in Johnnie’s appeal. According to him, the reason Mark Fuhrman made for the perfect specimen was because he proved what “black people already knew,” that the LAPD was made up of racist cops who took pleasure in beating—and killing—black people. But the show suggests that the wound might go deeper still. Among the props of O.J.’s house décor the Rockwell’s painting stands out as a faint reminder of a buried historical promise: The New Left of the 1960s aimed to better the lives of black Americans, providing them with employment and greater self-determination & protection from police brutality. These demands however, didn’t age well after the boom years were exhausted and black power politics were seamlessly absorbed into neoliberal support for black faces among the professional managerial class. For the rest of black working people, white flight from the cities left them in neglected urban spaces with rising black unemployment and a decline in life expectancy among African-Americans.(1) 

By the 1990s, this accumulation of historical failure had paralyzed and disoriented the political left. Working black people across America bore the brunt of its ill effects, and the propaganda of advancement had become a cruel joke. In these desperate conditions, the O.J. case held for people the promise of relief in the abstract: ‘racial justice’ against the LAPD. Finally, the possibility of a win.

In order to squeeze out a glimmer of hope from of this bleak reality, the show offers its viewers the tender relationship between Marcia Clark, lead prosecutor, and Chris Darden, her co-counsel (played by a dreamy Sterling Brown). After Simpson’s acquittal, both lawyers faced intense public scrutiny and criticism for how they’d handled the trial.(2) But instead of playing up this angle, the show highlights how the two—one black the other white, one a man and the other a woman with a personal history of sexual abuse—crossed gender and racial barriers to fight for an indictment, together. And though they failed, in so doing, they learned the most important lesson of all: that they “didn’t listen to each other” (Clark to Darden, Episode 9). What this means, who knows. The two apparently went their separate ways after the trial. But in what seems like a glaring missed opportunity, the show fails to deliver on the Marcia-Chris sex scene—disappointing, given the amount of evidence that this happened in more than one occasion.

Chris Darden was haunted by the O.J. case; in a 2015 Huffington Post interview he confessed how he’d been “devastated and decimated by the trial.”(3) And no wonder, he had sustained an aggressive and effective psychological attack by the defense team. Letters labeling him an “Uncle Tom,” an unworthy member of the black community and a self-hating black man, all worked to the defense’s advantage. At one point in the show—that Darden confirmed as an accurate depiction of the exchange between the two lawyers—Cochran embraces him, leans into his ear, and sternly advices him to “let the white people do Fuhrman.” The implication being that Darden was the token black man, on the case simply because the District Attorney’s office needed to appear more legitimate to the black jurors (the show suggests this might have been true). Cochran and Darden worked together and shared hopes of reforming the system from within–Darden might even have considered Johnnie a mentor during these years. Episode after episode, it’s hard not to feel for Darden, who was clearly ill-equipped to deal with the sideshow the trial had become. His appeal to reason failed to compel the jurors while Johnnie’s charismatic appeal to emotion promised much more—even if it failed to deliver. This much at least, Darden understood. In the last episode he tells Johnnie,

Chris Darden: All the people saw is how well you can twist the system. This isn’t some civil rights milestone. Police in this country will keep arresting us, keep beating us, keep killing us. You haven’t changed anything for black people here—unless, of course, you’re a famous rich one in Brentwood.

Alas, Darden doesn’t get the last word. After their bitter interaction, Johnnie dashes to a celebration at his office and arrives to champagne and fanfare. A colleague keeping up with the news coverage gets his attention: “They’re talking about you, Johnnie.” A hopeful Cochran enters the room to see Bill Clinton on the television responding to the verdict. Johnnie’s eyes tear up. He turns to his young acolytes and tells them, “at least our story is out of the shadows.” 

Bill Clinton: …I think the answer to that is to spend more time listening to each other. And try to put ourselves in each others’ shoes and understand why we see the world in different ways, and keep trying to overcome that. I would say, that even though it’s disturbing, we have succeeded so far in managing the world’s most multi-ethnic, diverse democracy better than a lot of countries smaller than we are with fewer differences in them.

Bill Clinton, who had shimmied his way into black America’s heart by playing the sax on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992, carried so much favor in the 90s that Toni Morrison christened him America’s “first black president.” But apart from the couple of black politicians appointed to his cabinet, for the great majority of black Americans the election of Clinton left them without recourse to federal aid, persecuted by the “war on drugs,” or locked away in federal prison. Clinton’s administration presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates in American history, inaugurating the “era of mass incarceration.” This was a deliberate political strategy devised to bring back disaffected white Southerners who’d embraced former president Ronald Reagan’s agenda on race, crime, welfare, and taxes. In this way, Clinton was exemplary of the “New Democrats,” a faction of the Democratic Party, who believed that the only way to win back those millions of white votes was to adopt the right-wing narrative that poor black people ought to be disciplined by the state instead of being “coddled” with welfare.  Furthermore, it was Clinton who championed the idea of a federal “three strikes” law in his 1994 State of the Union address and, shortly after, signed a thirty-billion-dollar crime bill that created dozens of new federal capital crimes, mandated life sentences for some three-time offenders, and authorized more than sixteen billion dollars for state prison grants and the expansion of police forces.(4) Bill Clinton, as it turned out, was no friend to black people. 

The People v. O.J. Simpson is silent on this historical record, but it’s hardly to blame. Its viewers would be less inclined to watch a historical drama if it meant subjecting themselves to lessons in political charlatanry and the failures of the political left. A little too real for Tuesday night television. Instead, we are given Marcia and Chris. They were good people, who tried, loved and failed, but were inspired to make changes in their personal lives. Why would we want anything more? 

This leaves Johnnie. Was he just a charismatic peddler of lies? Didn’t we, too, want to believe him—even if we knew better? Cochran, after all, denounced a form of justice ruthlessly maintained at gunpoint by the executive arm of the state. He openly called it a (racist) lie. His empty promises of redemption were powerful precisely because the jurors wanted more than to be lied to—even if they too were ultimately conned by the defense’s fabrications. So when Johnnie comes on the screen, we hate him and we love him: we hate him because he is there to remind us just how much we are willing to deceive ourselves in the absence of anything resembling freedom. But we love him because he might be there as a placeholder, as a symptom of a society that may still want more than the lie, even if it doesn’t know what to do with this inexplicable longing.

 

 

 

 

1.  Adolph Reed, Black Particularity Reconsidered (1979)

2.  For more on this, see See District Attorney, Vincent Bugliosi’s Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away with Murder (1996).

3.  According to Darden’s memoir, In Contempt:

[A]n L.A. newspaper reporter sidled up to me in the hallway. “Johnnie Cochran is saying the only reason you’re on this case is because you’re black.”
I recoiled. “What?”
He repeated it, and I shifted the files in my arms and took another step toward my office. “Johnnie wouldn’t say something like that.”
The reporter asked for a comment but I said no.
“Until I hear Johnnie say it, I’m not going to comment.” . . . Cochran was low, but not that low.
A little while later the reporter showed up with a tape player and held it out. “Here. You want to hear it? I got it right here.”…
The fallout was immediate. On talk radio and in newspapers, in barbershops and restaurants, I was branded an Uncle Tom, a sellout, a house Negro.

4.  More on this, Michelle Alexander, “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote” (2016)

 

 
 
 O.J. and the Heisman in 1968

O.J. and the Heisman in 1968

 
 Normal Rockwell’s  The Problem We All Live With  (1963)

Normal Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With (1963)

 

 O.J. Simpson featured in the 1978 Hertz Commercial, leaping into his car rental, breaking barriers outside the field.

 
 Juror Lionel (Lon) Cryer giving O.J. the black power fist. As  The New York Times  reported, Cryer was a former Black Panther whom prosecutors had inexplicably left on the panel.    

Juror Lionel (Lon) Cryer giving O.J. the black power fist. As The New York Times reported, Cryer was a former Black Panther whom prosecutors had inexplicably left on the panel. 

 

 

Bill Clinton responds to the O.J. verdict

 
  Bill on  Arsenio Hall

Bill on Arsenio Hall

 
 O.J. holding himself at gunpoint to stave off capture by the LAPD.

O.J. holding himself at gunpoint to stave off capture by the LAPD.

The Closed-Eyes Listener & The Forty Part Motet

by Bret Schneider


 

Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet has become a laboratory for studying projected experience, an example-in-miniature of contradictory listening habits, and an opportunity to develop a theory of the closed-eyes listener. The nature of the piece invites serious listening: Thomas Tallis’ sixteenth-century divine composition, Spem in Alium, gains an unnatural weight by being brought into the austere laboratory setting of the gallery. It is as if the piece itself is being watched and scrutinized by detached minds instead of felt and experienced by wholesome bodies. In truth it is the new category of serious listening that is brought under scrutiny. But ‘serious listening’ is a category of modernity that remains incomplete, so listeners imitate what they think this might mean. The appearance of pretension towards continuing such a project as a listener is matched only by it’s necessity: there is no other project for avant-garde sound art. To continue the project of serious listening also means that there are a lot of contentious ways of interpreting the material.

As if on cue, the plebes enter the circle of serious listening and close their eyes, like the throngs at a rock concert who hold their lighters up for the slow song. Countless people with their eyes closed, listening real hard, is an affectation that will annoy those who accomplish difficult, apperceptive listening with their eyes open. Difficult listening does not require eyes to be closed: as our best avant-garde composers have proposed, we are at such a high stage of listening development that even the least-cultivated amongst us can and will synthesize complex auditory material. The splintering of serious and light listening in modernism suggested not that one was better or worse, but that we live in a society that is developing mass listening literacy, so to speak. In some ways, those who shut their eyes and tune out reality are usually the most uncultivated in their listening, and imitate the clichés of so-called authentic listening that have become the norm in a culture of regressed ideas around music. By analogy, on a visit to the newly reopened Art Institute of Chicago in 2009 I witnessed a woman nearly on her knees in front of a Matisse, exhibiting loudly for everyone to hear, "how I've missed you so!" To put it rather bluntly, this type of listening is more often than not a means for high-class trash to flaunt their intellectual superiority when in fact it evidences the incapability of having a challenging and contradictory experience. In contrast, the sound installations and performances by Maryanne Amacher encouraged people to walk around the room, talk, and even dance. Vulgarity and distraction did not limit the challenges offered by the listening experience. 

This is not to say that there isn't something very meaningful in the piece. It's just that the true meaning is occluded by a recent regression into culinary appreciation. The listening affectation is like someone closing their eyes while drinking a fine wine. But on the other hand, the closed-eyes listener may desperately be trying to get away from the transcendent experiences that are projected onto the work, in order to develop critical listening. On a more essential level, the appreciative aspect is akin to someone staring really hard at all the details of a painting that was never meant to be looked at so clinically. Looking and listening like this becomes an outward demonstration of looking and listening.

I propose that the truthful joy of The Forty Part Motet is rather more sober, clinical and above all alienated than the sublime or transcendent categories projected onto it. It is a highly industrial piece, with ugly wires and generic speakers, reflecting the circus-like environment of people taking selfies amidst both high-class trash and impoverished war veterans trying to listen in a godless society that administers experience and rations electricity to lay bare outmoded claims of religious unity. One is expected to attend an exhibition in their carefully administered free time, required to have a profound experience in a matter of minutes, and left to go home to their disheveled beds and fast food. To say that you didn't have a profound aesthetic experience is an insult to what remains of experience. But to say that you did is a lie. The listening is far from deep, it is hurried and shallow. The openness of a sound installation (instead of a concert hall) only means that people can leave earlier instead of being forced to listen to something in its entire unity. The relativity of experience in The Forty Part Motet—that it can be profound for some, and boring for others, each bringing their own judgments—only shows how far we are from the unified experience of medieval music which was shared in divine time by an entire society, and in an architecture that was designed for the music, not the other way around. The tiny speakers and their diminished sound spectrum will never grant access to the spectral gates of heaven. So then what is it that makes people cry? It is in reality the palpable absence of a meaningfully unified experience, paired with a subconscious notion that what might be happening is so alienated that it will never be recovered. In other words, people cry out of a longing to fulfill the concept of serious listening, while not knowing exactly how to do so. Even crying in an examined world is a psychologized act of the mind, and not an outpouring of emotions. 

And yet The Forty Part Motet is not nothing. In 2016 it stakes a timely presence amidst a glut of composers and sound artists who proclaim to be inspired by, and often idealize medieval polyphony. Tim Hecker claims in Love Streams (2016) to make "church music," and Arvo Pärt claims to be part of an orthodox tradition reaching back to the monks. Ever since the autonomy painstakingly won by art led merely to its unreflective overproduction, it has become the province of artists to lay claim to sacred histories as a means to combat their genericness. You know you're in the territory of the vulgar when someone proclaims to be part of a sacred tradition of the monks. 

But more germane to the artwork is the modern philosophy of re-feeling the old before anything new is undertaken. Composers like Steve Reich or Györgi Ligeti (who created at the height of modernism) were also influenced by medieval polyphony, but more interested in fulfilling the latent claims of centuries-old art. For instance, the final liberation of art from the church meant that such polyphony could be heard for the first time on its own, and not as an extension of the hand of god. Attendant with a re-feeling of the old would be a new type of listening, even though they did not explicitly state it as such. Nor could it be programmatically predicted. This new type of listening necessitated new forms of analytic, and not transcendent experience. Bourgeois listening lags behind the artworks it supports.

The hypocrisy evident in the 'profound' listening culture of high-class trash is that there's countless new music that goes ignored because it's “too difficult.” New experiments with new techniques and new music materials are ghettoized while the old remains compelling—not just on an intellectual level but an aesthetic one. “Constructivist” tendencies, for lack of a better word, that embody such new practices have for the past half-century been just as radical as they are besides the point of experience. The innovative aspects of the Motet go ignored at the expense of the examination of interesting listening pathologies. It presents something different than a past/future style issue, or an issue in style altogether in that the content is subordinate to the opportunity for listening that it offers. It’s more about the idea of listening. The Motet gives listeners the sense that they have the space and time to examine sound and draw conclusions beyond the varieties of romanticism that bourgeois music has already concluded for them. 

Likewise at the John Luther Adams concert that was paired with the exhibition the Motet is currently in, romantic bourgeois music has needed to incorporate the most alienated materials of capitalism—e.g. electronics—in order to complete its visions of nature, shamanism, landscape, and so forth. It's a contradiction. Those materials contradict the romantic unity of experience by both fulfilling the romantic ideal and undermining it. This is what Brian Eno had in mind when he said that all music was at its core electronic. It remains only for the artists that rely on electronics to take hold of that material. But such formulations are wrong the extent to which romantic music pathologically avoids becoming conscious of its own production. There is nothing ‘natural’ in John Luther Adams’ music, excepting the second nature of unconscious culture! And this material basis extends into listening itself: the Motet is sensory only in the most alienated of ways, where the listener is more of an observer and studier of their senses. The ear is engaged by being detached and isolated by a secondary, more developed faculty of critical listening.

What our culture at large has been painstakingly developing is a type of analytic listening. It is everywhere and it is how we experience. We don't listen with rapture but with cold judgment; we listen closely for flaws in performances; we repeatedly listen to the same recorded works with more powerful headphones so as to learn them better. Listening is more of an enlightenment project than a romantic one. The Forty Part Motet evidences this type of listening in its austere arrangement that invites listeners to complete the experiment. But, it also evidences the ongoing pathologies of bourgeois listening that measures new experiences by old yardsticks. Cardiff herself was surprised that audiences find it a transcendent experience—this is because transcendence doesn’t do the work justice. The closed-eyes listener is an attempt to make experience critical, and not romantic. 

 

 

Janet Cardiff The Forty Part Motet (A reworking of “Spem in Alium,” by Thomas Tallis, 1556), 2001. Currently on view at Pulitzer Arts, St. Louis.
40 track sound recording, 40 speakers. 14 min. © Janet Cardiff. Photo by Carly Ann Faye

 

Thomas Tallis, Spem in Alium (c. 1556). 

The Amateur's Embrace: Gerasimos Floratos @ White Columns

by Chris Mansour

 


The word amateur stems from the Latin root amātor, which means lover. Over time the term has come to harbor negative connotations, giving people reason to dismiss the amateur for not having enough command in their activity of choice. They are too unskilled and inexperienced, lack deliberation and control, and approach anything and everything without sophistication. Passion and potential they may possess, but the love they project outwardly tends to lack full reciprocation. Only partially conscious of what they are doing, the amateur's work is sparsely attended to by an audience, making their pursuit a lonely one. A lover in solitude, but many are out there.

There are those, however, who do pay attention to the ways of the amateur. The majority of them are artists who intimately engage with artworks created by novices, using what they find as reference material or a source for creative inspiration. In some cases artists appropriate the amateur's aesthetic to guide their own methodologies. Picasso and the cubists incorporated the forms of primitive African masks into modernist painting, and in the post-war period, Dubuffet and the art brutists engaged with art made by “outsiders:” children, the mentally insane, and untrained. The contemporary painter Gerasimos Floratos, who recently exhibited eleven works on canvas and twenty-one works on paper at White Columns in New York—and is not academically trained himself—seems to be carrying on this pursuit of borrowing from the amateur with a 21st century sensibility.

At a quick glance, Floratos’ presentation appears to be simply the product of an unskilled hand. If one were to evaluate the exhibition based on the standard metric of painterly conventions, he would fail on nearly every count. The majority of his canvases are haphazardly stretched to the point where they slouch: one can almost imagine them rustling like sheets in the wind if they were lightly blown on. Some surfaces are lumpy or crinkled in various quadrants, and all of the canvases are soiled and unkempt. The materials are cheap, and chalky paint is brushed on in wide, unwieldy strokes. Bold colors are liberally applied all throughout the picture plane, but each piece uses a relatively limited palette. Drawings are executed on the surface of standard computer or craft paper, with what looks to be the most rudimentary Crayola markers and crayons. Pictorially, the subject matter would be considered sophomoric. The majority of the paintings depict closed framed graffiti-esque portraits of truncated or smushed cartoon characters; they have the feel of doodles conjured up by high school boys bored in class.

All of these features combined surely do not carry the hallmarks of serious culture or its tradition. But there is something more going on. The merits of his work cannot simply be reduced to pure kitsch. Floratos sees the hidden brilliance in the qualities of unskilled artists and transfigures them into a stylistic motif. The strict list of things “not to do” in painting—such as using low-grade materials, dirtied canvases, weak stretches, and sloppy techniques—are turned on their head and become the general rule that Floratos operates under. He takes all the naive mistakes made by the novice and purposely exaggerates them to the point where they become compelling gestures. Even if the result is oftentimes ugly in the sense that the compositions and subject matter are not delightful, overall, they manage to become good paintings worthy of consideration.

The most successful choice by Floratos is to use enormous canvases. With the exception of one piece, Untitled (Figure), none of them are under sixty inches in width or length. This way, the caricatures he portrays are larger than life and loom over their audience. Considering the scale alone provides evidence that his practice transcends amateurism because of its mindful formal decisions. Beyond size, the overall compositions coalesce all their elements in a satisfying way. There is a level of sophistication in the use of negative space, and the layout of the images logically follow the shape of the picture plane. Further, the distribution of color is in most cases balanced, provoking the eye to smoothly follow the paintings’ rhythm. Town Square Alignment, one of the best works in the exhibition, runs the risk of looking top-heavy since the bottom of the painting is minimally worked through in lightly colored paint, whereas the middle-top areas are heavily undercoated with dark hues. Yet, without being a distraction, a small triangular field of black on the bottom edge brings everything together like a linchpin.

Although the majority of his portraits appear to be standing humans, they are melded with traits from other creatures such as rabbits, praying mantises, and frogs. Only two paintings, both titled Local Soft Body, are unmistakably more bunny than man. The anatomies of several bodies are compressed, making them unusually contorted and hard to decipher immediately as a rendered figure. Untitled (Figure), TS Dual Postup, and Mystic Taxi are the pieces that most quickly deteriorate into organic shapes. All lacking torsos, their midsections are nothing but a flimsy connecting point for ballooned hands, feet, and faces. Perhaps unintentionally, the characters look like a personified cortical homunculus, a diagram that visualizes the brain’s sensorial relationship to parts of the body through scale. Floratos’ paintings want to induce a corporal effect on the viewer, to heighten their awareness of the sensitive areas of their own bodies, where nerve endings are densely clustered.

Because of their size, abstract compositions, and innervating effect, the images are a confrontational experience. Such strategies play well into the archetypes Floratos creates, which he calls “sketchballs and lurkers.” They are reminiscent of stereotypes you would find in urban street culture from the late 1990s through early 2000s: Homies, Ravers, Pot Heads, B-Boys, and other riff raff. At once reclined and in mid-pose, the figures, with their squinted eyes and blunts in mouth, conspicuously sport baggy clothes, bulky sneakers, Kangol caps, or large belt buckles. Their standoffish composure and look of suspicion or inebriation shows the emotional weathering they are subjected to as city slickers. In fact, the residue embedded on the paintings’ surfaces reflects the grittiness of street life, capturing dirt like a makeshift air filter. They act as a reminder that despite all the superficial cleansing programs that metropoles are implementing—concealing graffiti and tag markings, planting flowers in empty lots, or the dislocation of the homeless and drug addicts—the grime of urban life persistently returns since the source is never truly addressed. Floratos’ paintings scrape at the underbelly of society and prominently display its undesirable elements—the ones that cities obsessed with sanitation go at lengths to conceal. But the work looks more goofy than menacing, as the characters appear to always be “keeping it cool.” Whether or not this trait can be read as an ode to a style, or a representation of a defense mechanism, is up for the viewers to decide.

The paintings on canvas by far display the most confidence and demand the greatest attention. There are several interesting drawings, but presenting them as framed discrete works feel a bit forced. Additionally, the choice of using smooth bright white computer paper for some of the pieces, although conceptually sound because of its cheapness and ubiquity, seem to clash with the tactility of Floratos’ mark-making. The drawings are most at home in the format of a zine, and a free one was indeed co-released with fellow artist Eddie Martinez for the opening event. Printed on thin, recycled sheets—likely one grade above newspaper—reproductions of their aggressive penmanship and gritty colors are intermingled throughout the pages. It would be interesting to see how this paper type bound together would correspond with Floratos’ direct application of paint or marker. The effect of how the oils and inks are absorbed into the fibers might enhance his chosen aesthetic since both sides would be viewable.

As a whole, it is clear that Floratos has revamped the ways of the amateur and did not merely mimic them. He brings out the best of these techniques (or lack thereof) by improving their affect, by making them more than they normally could be. A rare talent but a necessary one, as it encourages people to see something new in what is often hastily overlooked. Hence, a distinction should be made between what is mediocre and what is amateurish, as the two terms are not equivalent on a deeper level. To paraphrase the photographer John Gossage, “I like things that should not work but for some reason do.” Floratos might as well adopt this as his maxim since he embraces all the wrong moves in an attempt to make them right. For that reason, he is an amateur in the true sense of the word.

 

Tristate Allstars, 2016. Oil, acrylic and spray paint on canvas. 132 x 169 inches. (Courtesy of White Columns, New York)

 

Town Square Alignment, 2016. Oil on canvas. 86 x 65 inches. (Courtesy of White Columns, New York)

 
  Local Soft Body , 2015. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 77 x 65 inches. ( Courtesy of White Columns, New York)

Local Soft Body, 2015. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 77 x 65 inches. (Courtesy of White Columns, New York)

 

Spread from the zine by Gerasimos Floratos and Eddie Martinez (image courtesy of Chris Mansour)

 

The Perfect Storm

by Wentai Xiao

 

Although it sold north of $300M off a $100M budget, nobody really liked Wolfgang Petersen's film The Perfect Storm (2000), based on a well-liked novel of the same title by Sebastian Junger. Its reviews (Metacritic 59/100; Rotten Tomatoes 47/100) are commonly resolved that the movie lacks both character and plot, and differ only in the extent to which they find its "special effects" to make up for either or both. Here, it once might have been possible to have a discussion about the capacity of form generally to make up for content, or whether and how movies can exert a special pressure upon the question of form vs. content, rather than simply service it as an object over which differences in the exertion of such pressure entirely comprise differences in movie-making results. But there were no conditions for such a thing in 2000, nor are there now--indeed, this is why I am as qualified to write this review as those that find themselves in the happy situation of being paid to write reviews (because that is all we mean by "expert," right?). 

Instead, whenever a movie does well at the box office but does not exhibit already agreed upon categories of meaning, its critics whip out a ready-made solution: that "mass audiences" were seduced by the movie's "special effects." Indeed, for critics, "special effects" has become code word for "mass audiences." It should be obvious that such an exercise entirely excuses critics of the labor of critiquing, or at the very least, ascribing more, not less, critical interest to those blockbusters that cannot be accounted for by the old dependable interpretive stances. And as in the world of movies we come upon the impotent excuse of "special effects," so in the world of music, we find what critics describe as "dance music." For in both cases, the critic ascribes to "mass audiences" an experiential anatomy which responds to but does not register—let alone recognize—this stimulative sight or that stimulative sound, and so the eye is stirred, the ear is prickled, and the leg begins to shake at the knee. 

And when a movie is reduced to "special effects" or a song to "dance music," what happens to their audiences, but that they are reduced to sense? But if movies, songs, and audiences could really be reduced like this, would not an honest critic admit that at best he is a good gastronomist and at worst a bad gastronomist, tasked with assessing how this dish or that drink stimulates a particular organ of the consumer's body?

The Perfect Storm is one such movie and Batman vs. Superman (2016; Budget $200M / Box Office $800M+; Metacritic 44/100) is another more recent example. And we find in between these 16 years many terribly reviewed box office successes, e.g. Pacific Rim (2013; $190M / $411M; 64/100), Hancock (2008; $150M / $624M; 49/100), The Day After Tomorrow (2004; $125M / $544M; 47/100), Transformers (2007; $150M / $710M; 61/100). On every such occasion, you will find the "special effects" excuse indefensibly trotted out for show. Meanwhile, blockbusters exhibiting categories of meaning confirmed in the past are critically rewarded, e.g. Forrest Gump (1994; $55M / $670M; 82/100), Avatar (2009; $230M / $2.8B; 83/100), Up (2009; $175M / $730M; 88/100), and Finding Nemo (2003; $94M / $930M; 90/100). The problem with these movies is not only that they affirm what is already agreed upon and thus offer their audiences nothing new; it is that the very survival of what is already agreed upon depends upon a consensus lack of clarification. As such, these movies deepen the old comfortable untruths. 

This article takes up The Perfect Storm as one example of a movie that was both commercially successful and critically resisted. We will try to understand what its audience stumbled upon but what its critics missed, or, rather, what the movie stumbled upon but what nobody articulated well. 

There are three parts to The Perfect Storm: the introduction of characters, the exposition of plot, and the composition of setting. And because the three parts fall in that order, its critics were unable to recognize the first two for what they are, and were compelled to conclude that the whole film should be evaluated on the degree to which they service the third as its means. Hence, the middle class critic premier Roger Ebert writes of the first third, "We learn about the economic pressures of the swordfishing industry, we meet the crew members and their women, we learn a little of their stories, and then the film is about the ship, the storm and the people waiting in port for news" (2000). For him, the whole thing could have been the third thing were it not for the masses demanding the first and second things, i.e. money, women, and "onboard conflict" to justify its "special effects." Thus the conclusion of his review: "We know intellectually [intellectually? what the hell does that even mean?] that we're viewing special effects.... This is not important.... It's possible to criticize the sketchy characters, but pointless. The movie is about the appalling experience of fighting for your life in a small boat in a big storm. If that is what you want to see, you will see it done here about as well as it can be done." What a load of lazy thinking! And with what self-satisfaction it is done. 

Let us turn to how Roger Ebert understands the movies' introduction of its characters. He writes, "The crew members of the Andrea Gail are a job lot of basic movie types. We count Capt. Billy Tyne (George Clooney), whose pride has been stung because his catch has fallen behind this season. His crew includes Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), who is in love with divorced mom Diane Lane; Murph (John C. Reilly), whose seafaring life has led to a friendly but sad separation from his wife and son; Bugsy (John Hawkes), the sort of character who gets overlooked in crowds; Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne), a Jamaican who has ventured into northern waters for the paycheck, and a last-minute addition, Sully (William Fichtner). He and Murph don't like each other. Why not? Jealousy over Murph's wife, the movie says. To provide the plot with onboard conflict is my guess." And so it goes. 

Leaving aside for the moment how lazy and disingenuous it is for a critic to accuse a movie of lazy and disingenuous insertion of "onboard conflict" (and where it should occur it surely must be shown, not stated!), we first focus on the character of Billy Tyne. Roger Ebert's bit about Billy Tyne comes from a conversation he has with Bob Brown, the owner of the swordboat, the Andrea Gail, after she and several others dock in Gloucester at the end of the North Atlantic season (late October). Billy Tyne and Linda Greenlaw, captain of a second swordboat also owned by Brown, report the gross amount of fish they have caught. Linda reports a score which Brown describes agreeably as, "my kind of numbers." Of Billy Tyne, on the other hand, he says, "didn't hit very hard, did you? You know, we all have our slumps, but aren't you overdue to break out of yours?" Billy is immediately affected.    

After the swordfish from each boat are weighed, and the ledger settled, the crews fall out before Brown to receive their pay. Brown continues to harangue Billy Tyne, promising him, "If you can't make her pay, I'll find somebody who can." He is referring, of course, to the capital of which he seems to be the sole provider in Gloucester: the Andrea Gail, the primary site of conflict in the movie. Capital as embodied by the Andrea Gail comprises the only means by which the crew's skills, knowledge, and determination can be employed in valuable production. And Brown is right: only above a certain break-even level of return does such production outpace the rate of depreciation suffered by the swordboat. Below this level, it makes more sense for Brown to sell the Andrea Gail, costing the men their income and their jobs. They need the Andrea Gail to work, to live. But their relationship with the boat is fraught with contradiction. For it is because of a technical detail of the boat—the giving out of the ice machine—that the crew is pressed to drive into the storm, and moreover it is because of a structural detail of the boat that everyone except Bobby Shatford becomes trapped below-deck and drowned. The third portion of the movie is anything but mere "special effects" interspersed with the cries of frantic men, for the setting is not comprised of the conditions of the ocean, but rather the manifold contradictions of the Andrea Gail. That is, between the men and the weather there stands the Andrea Gail, and as such it is through her that the former interacts with the latter. It's been a long time since grade school, but I think the definition of setting is still 'where the action takes place.' Only a critic could miss the fact that the setting of the movie is the Andrea Gail. 

But for now, our focus remains on the two conversations between Brown and Billy Tyne. The second round of Brown's haranguing, after the bookkeeping, triggers a strong response: Billy promises his boss vengefully, "I'm going to bring you more fish than you ever dreamed of." That is, after Brown threatens Billy with unemployment unless Billy brings in more fish, Billy threatens Brown with... bringing in more fish. The promises both reflect one another and speak past one another. This is a compressed moment of characterization that Roger Ebert glances over as learning about the "economic pressures of the swordfishing industry." He completely fails to appreciate the questions raised by the introduction of these "economic pressures," particularly: what do they imply about the story that unfolds? One could argue that Brown is responsible for the death of the crew ("if you can't make her pay"). In this case, the movie is about the struggle of workers against their conditions of work—the weather—in disastrous combination with economic compulsion imposed from above by Brown, the owner of capital. This seems supported by the little smile on Brown's face after Billy Tyne tells him he will take on greater risk to catch bigger fish, for as long as Billy Tyne brings the Andrea Gail back to harbor, "more fish than you ever dreamed of" means a larger profit, holding constant Brown's share and the variable costs of production, i.e., bait, equipment, food for the crew. Under this interpretation, the ensuing struggle of the crew with the storm is totally victimized, with the members of the crew reduced to mere objects of domination from above. The only "takeaway", if you will, from this interpretation, is a certain appreciation-frustration, really-with respect to the wastefulness of the men's struggle to survive. What was it all for? This interpretative stance crudely answers, Bob Brown's wallet.  

However, the above interpretation does not hold water. For during the second exchange between Brown and Billy Tyne, the owner of the boat explicitly instructs the captain of the boat not to put himself or his crew in danger, because, very simply, Brown does not wish to lose an enormous capital outlay, his Andrea Gail. Indeed, in most situations, including this one, it is not economically rational for a capitalist to encourage his workers to take the kinds of risks that would destroy the value of his capital. Besides, the notion that capitalists actually think about "profit" and "life" in explicit trade-off terms is absurd and an exercise of caricature we seem to have inherited from "class" analysis of art, which not by accident once carried out the wholesale suppression of art in China. There isn't much to suggest that beyond the demands of his role, Brown is anything worse than a little insensitive; hence, we assume that like any decent person he would prefer his crew to live. “Class" analysis of art not only reduces workers to mere objects of domination, but boogey-mans the capitalist as something other than a mere man who, for as long as he can or needs to, personifies the will to expand value. One simply cannot have it this way and get interesting characters at all. 

If not, then, the combination of the conditions of work with the economic compulsions of work, if not bad weather and Brown, what or who is to blame for the terrible outcomes and losses? Let us return to the exchange between Brown and Billy Tyne. Recall that it is Billy Tyne that insists he will go out past the Grand Banks to prove to Brown that he is capable of finding and catching bigger fish. And as we have already seen, it is Brown that protests this idea. One begins to reason, then, that the crew might have died to affirm the ideals of swordfishing: the old bravery, the intelligent exercise of physical skill, the opportunities for fraternity which forcibly arise when a group of men are singularly confronted with disaster. Put otherwise, that these men did not die for Brown's wallet, but in an inter-generationally meaningful struggle that brings dignity to the lives of swordfishing men. This is what I will call a romantic interpretation of the movie in contradistinction with “class” analysis. 

Indeed, the opening shot of the movie-the names of those "lost at sea" since the 17th century displayed on the Gloucester City Hall walls-in combination with the scenes aboard the Andrea Gail in the lead up to the storm appear to support the romantic stance. This comprises the plot of the movie. The first rounds of fishing yield smaller and smaller fish and the crew, discouraged by their catch and exhausted by the difficulties they have already encountered—a shark on deck, Murph falling over board—brings Billy Tyne below and tells him they want to go home. The "class" stance would applaud this sentiment. However, Billy Tyne tells the crew they are behaving like "little boys." He says bitterly, "This is the moment of truth; this is where they separate the men from the boys. How about it? Are you Gloucestermen?" and shares with them his plan to venture far east of the Grand Banks to the Flemish Cap. One of the men responds: "Yeah, we're Gloucestermen, but why go all the way to the Flemish Cap to prove it?" to which Billy Tyne replies, "Because that's where the fish are." For the romantic, this is precisely the moment for the movie to engage in a big "hurrah" all around. Why should it not be, if the stance were tenable that the crew dies not for Brown's wallet but for some vague morality of swordfishing. But we do not get any such "hurrah". Instead the exhausted men bitterly agree to Billy Tyne's plan and the scene is cut right there. 

The second opportunity for a big "hurrah" occurs after the ice machine breaks, forcing the crew to decide between steaming through an impending storm to bring fresh catch into Gloucester and waiting out the weather, letting their dearly won Flemish Cap lot rot. It is indeed revealed that the crew pulled north of 60,000 pounds off the Flemish Cap, three times the amount they fished off the Grand Banks. Billy Tyne shows them the weather fax he has received and suggests,"Or we say the hell with it, and drive right through it." Here there arises another opportunity to pay genuine homage to the ethic of swordfishing; yet, the men tentatively mutter, "it's a lot of fish," and "it's a lot of money," and we watch Billy Tyne nod and order them to prepare the vessel for return to Gloucester. And then the scene is over, and the romantic is unsatisfied. 

Thus, neither the "class" nor the romantic interpretative stances are granted much credibility by the movie. And it is precisely this discipline that makes The Perfect Storm a good movie: it poses a question rather than affirm an already agreed upon stance—for one will find that in this world there are innumerable unscrupulous classists and romantics (although that's a bit redundant) ready to hop on board interchangeably with either. If a movie affirms an already agreed upon stance, it has offered its audience nothing new. For The Perfect Storm, the question of what they died for is kept hanging in the balance. 

It is no small feat for a movie's writers, directors, and actors to resist the temptation to directly answer the question. Yet, it is these movies that suffer most under the anemia of the critics.  

For who are "Gloucestermen" after all? What does such an identity imply? That some men, due to the conditions of their birth, were born to drown below the decks of inadequately equipped ships? Were born to catch big fish for the owners of fisheries or die trying? The concession of dignity to any line of work cannot but essentially condemn its workers to their fate. 

And what is the fate of these Gloucestermen, now that they have proven they are indeed Gloucestermen? The third part of the movie is where combat occurs. The setting—outside the Andrea Gail, the water, the sky, the rain, and inside her, the wheel, the kitchen, the bunk beds, the television set—is the source, the site, and the content of this combat. There are actually only two combat scenes in the movie: Andrea Gail vs. the first wave and Andrea Gail vs. the second. The former combat scene ends with a very brief reprieve. The amazing thing about it is that it is believable: even as everyone in the audience has seen the movie cover prior to the movie, even as they know there's a fifty foot wave the Andrea Gail will scale vertically at some point but not just yet, the precise knowledge of nature which Billy Tyne musters to dealing with the first wave in comparison to the broad unthinking motion of the northeast seas is of such contrast that we believe it must have had an effect. With Bobby's help, he turns the Andrea Gail parallel to the first wave to absorb its impact on her side. And this is where the second combat scene is vital, for it thrusts plainly upon us the deeply uncomfortable thought that the first turn might as well not have happened at all.

The boat capsizes. Billy and Bobby crouch together a foot above the water beneath the upturned floor of the wheel. The broken window means that unlike the others, they can get out of the sinking ship. But without a raft, without life jackets, without any means of communication, they apprehend that they are as doomed as the rest of the crew. Bobby turns to Billy and says, "We made the right call—we had to try!" Billy barely responds, so Bobby tries again: "Hey! It was a hell of a fight though—huh, huh?" And Billy finally looks at Bobby, finally comprehends the consequences of his complete moral influence over Bobby. Bobby has been won over to his ethic. He opens his mouth and one almost wishes he would manage: "You fool, you followed me, now you will die, and you still believe what I told you, tell me, how was it the right call, how was it worth anything, why did we have to try, what did this get you, what did this get anybody, anybody?" Instead, Billy urges Bobby to get out of the window although he does not follow. Is it courage? Is it the old virtue of a captain remaining with his ship? Do we still believe in those things in the year 2000? (Did we ever?). For what does Billy Tyne bring Bobby? What does Billy Tyne bring Murph, Sully, Bugsy, Alfred Pierre? The moral consistency of Billy Tyne means a deeply wasteful loss of life for the men of the Andrea Gail and their families back in Gloucester. 

When Captain Greenlaw sees the crew restocking the Andrea Gail before setting off on their second round, she teases Billy Tyne: "There you go, flaunting your work ethic," to which he replies, "I don't have a work ethic. I just have work." Does the crew die for a work ethic or for work? The question is one of the gap between the means of life and how that means through middle class morality takes on the form of ends. But we have shown that this is not a movie about the loss of life for the ends of life, which redeems such a loss. Nor is it a movie merely about the loss of life through the means of life, which offers a view of domination as entirely from above, under which struggle from below is pitied and senseless. It is a movie about the loss of life through the means of life mediated by a morality that takes those means to be ends. Put otherwise, it is not the rogue wave that kills the crew of the Andrea Gail. Nor is it Bob Brown that kills the crew of the Andrea Gail. The perfect storm is not the compulsion workers face by the conditions of their work in disastrous combination with the demands made by the capitalist. The perfect storm is the combination of those external compulsions rendered conscious by those that work: it is Billy Tyne that kills the crew of the Andrea Gail. What he means for workers is far more deadly than what could ever be done to them by the capitalist or the storm. Billy Tyne shows us that the question is far from being whether or not workers should be led or left to lead themselves;-workers are already being led. The problem is only that it is done by the likes of Billy Tyne! So it goes: down with the likes of Billy Tyne!  

But the "fix" will not be found in ideas nor debates over ideas about work. Before he sets out, Billy Tyne tells Linda Greenlaw that the fact of her success in swordfishing proves her love for it, her sharing in his moral conception of their work. He is probably right. Would a worker who conceives of himself as "just a worker" and admits no pretension to the ethics of his work be good at what Billy and Linda do? Or is there is incremental daring, intuition, and passion economically required of the swordboat captain due to the many surprises he confronts as a matter of fact of the nature of his work? Economic compulsion may necessarily give rise to social forms adequate to sustaining its practice, even if for a short time, and if not Billy Tyne's brand, something else separate but equal to it. 

As the water level rises within the Andrea Gail, the crew trapped below deck have no time to do what we have done, and ask about the reasons for which they will have died. The speed of the water does not allow for it. Murphy manages to get out, "This will be hard on my little boy," but Bugsy, standing beside him, has no time to respond before they are both submerged. Sully stands alone knee-deep in the rising water, terrified and unable to speak. Alfred Pierre pounds upon the door, and then stops pounding. There is no hurrah for the romantic, nor anger for the classist. There is no satisfying reason offered in these last moments for why these lives have come to an end, and that is why this movie offers something new. 

I recently heard the Governor of New Mexico tell GOP members and sympathizers in New York that the question of America, the question of freedom, the question of opportunity, all "hang in the balance." I should think she is right. The problem is not only that there are not enough movies which like The Perfect Storm aesthetically express that which "hangs in the balance," but that if any movie should stumble upon doing so, the critics will be the last to notice, and the most surprised if first informed.

 

Citations:

Roger Ebert, "The Perfect Storm Movie Review (2000)," June 30, 2000. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-perfect-storm-2000.

The Perfect Storm (2000), directed by Wolfgang Petersen (2007; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video), DVD. 

Image pulled from: https://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/0901-Spring-2009/Shot-to-Remember-A-Perfect-Storm.aspx

 

 Image from  The Perfect Storm . 

Image from The Perfect Storm

 

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo

by Adam Rothbarth
 

Kanye West has released four albums in the past 10 years. Sometime early in this tetralogy, he struck a vein in the cultural libido, releasing a phenomenon he has sought to mediate through increasingly disjunctive production and release techniques and progressively erratic behavior in public and on social media. He sublimated this discharge elegantly in his reinvention albums 808s and Heartbreak (2008) and My Beautiful Dark Fantasy (2010), as well as their follow-up, the aggressively forward-looking and potentially revolutionary Yeezus (2013). From the standpoint of production, form, lyrics, samples, and even selection of guests, Yeezus was a leap away from the worst tendencies in postmodern hip-hop. In many ways this move was a step in the direction of the avant-garde. Much of the content on the latter record is so original that it has almost no point of reference outside of the samples used on it. The phenomenon that West seems to have tapped into is none other than the essence of social life today. 

West‘s trajectory is unique because, unlike most musicians, his work actually gets better the closer he gets to what one would call conventional stability. Jay Z’s music certainly lost its dramatic edge after he both married Beyoncé—whose career has continued to ascend—and became New York’s superlative rap mogul. Jeff Tweedy’s music suffered after he entered rehab for painkiller addiction; although his band’s 2015 Star Wars was excellent, Wilco will probably never produce another record as alienated and brilliant as A Ghost is Born, a work that opens with the sonic depiction of an anxiety attack and closes with a lamentation about a fabled lost song that no one will ever hear. Yet the closer West advances toward the American dream—becoming an entrepreneur and starting a family with Kim Kardashian—the more masterful and estranged his music becomes. To witness this type of intersection of convention and alienation in art today is sublime. What this sublimity actually means is that, through his last two records, he has essentially dispelled the notion that one needs to somehow be outside of the mainstream or antagonistic towards societal processes to create great art (if such a thing is possible). What West rightly shows is that it is only from within that one can offer this kind of critique. 

The Life of Pablo is West’s most dissonant record, literally and figuratively. Any critical aspect in postmodern or popular music would have to proceed first and foremost from an attention to form, which West pursues vigorously on this record. As far as tonal popular music goes, Pablo is a compelling and lonely work, following in the footsteps of other contemporary vanguard composers such as Oneohtrix Point Never and Swans. This record is highly modular, meaning that it rapidly shifts mood, tempo, mode, etc., actively discouraging passive listening. The record is most interesting when West pursues beautiful, monumental passages and cuts them off with subsequent dissonant moments. “Famous,” for example, begins with a solo vocal line sung by Rihanna, one that implies the major mode. When the music comes in, however, it is in the minor mode, taking up a decidedly more sinister vibe. The subsequent three minutes traverses major and minor modes and includes multiple samples, which degenerate from Rihanna’s iteration into the original Nina Simone sample from “Do What You Gotta Do” (originally by the Four Tops). The major mode sample of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” only amplifies its exuberant quality in relation to the preceding controversial passages about Taylor Swift. These references and lyrics are all bound up together in quick progressions of the positive and the negative. On “FML” West counterpoints a pressing anxiety with his feelings about his family and success with extremely ambivalent-sounding, out of tune text from Section 25’s “Hit”: “See through the veil/And forget all of your cares/Throw them, throw them away.” The song concludes with a jolting modulation to a distant key for a few bars before it fades out. “Freestyle 4” is possibly the weirdest track on the record: it begins with ominous, chromatic strings and a man growling, and when the freestyle actually begins, West imagines a brief scenario in which he has sex on a dinner table during a party. The beat doesn’t enter until 1:15, and only lasts for about 30 seconds, at which point the song’s bizarre, syncopated, percussion/synth outro begins. This is some very splintered music. On “Fade,” which some have dismissed as a failed club track, West rises to the apogee of his abilities as a producer. Through his use of four core samples from primarily house and club tracks—Fingers Inc.’s “Mystery of Love (Club Mix),” Hardrive’s “Deep Inside,” Ms. Barbara Tucker’s “I Get Lifted,” and Rare Earth’s “(I Know) I’m Losing You”—West succeeds in abstracting the songs’ most compelling moments and using them in counterpoint. Through this he reaches the ideal of sampling: to create something new by transforming something old. With the clear juxtaposition of “I get lifted, yes” and “Your love is fadin’/I feel it’s fadin’,” West concretely exposes one of the primary thematic contradictions of the record: the oscillation between faith and despair. 

The record’s vocals are dazzling, containing soaring melodies and virtuosic mastery of auto-tune, which West has come to prefer because, he has said, it actually brings out his bad notes. In fact, he utilizes many different vocal qualities on the record, from straight rapping to talking and singing with various programmings of auto-tune, ranging from tender to aggressive. He sounds different on almost every track; in this way the record can be seen as the fulfillment of his experiments with vocal techniques on his last three records. It is an extremely diverse record, not from the standpoint of identity politics, but from that of actual musical technique. It pulls off this diversity very well, managing to be simultaneously fragmented and integrating, a rare phenomenon in contemporary popular music. The only things actually consistent on the record are the motifs of profound suffering and supreme confidence and hopefulness that run throughout.

This new record has been compared to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp a Butterfly in its scope, but the two could not be more different. Where Lamar deals primarily in appearances of socio-political issues, West seems to be reaching for something deeper and more proximal to the nucleus of culture: real alienation. It is true that West is political in his music, but not in the same way as Lamar. West’s music is political not exclusively from the angle of identity politics or blackness, but from the standpoint of the social activities and particular modes of exchange in which all people participate. It is these activities and modes of exchange that produce the particular forms of social relations that Lamar misguidedly (but necessarily) seeks to work through in his own music. On The Life of Pablo West takes this critique beyond social relations and identity and deals with experience through engagement with universal themes such as family, business, sex, going to church, staying in touch with friends, taking medication, etc. Topically, this is his most “normal” album yet, and that should not be overlooked. The discrepancy here is that Lamar is trying to get the listener to think like a black person, whereas West is trying to get the listener to think like a bourgeois subject, even if this is operating on a level beyond his own consciousness. 

Conversely, it is the ideological and political aspects of Kendrick Lamar’s music that abate its critical potential. Lamar’s Butterfly is infinitely more cynical than The Life of Pablo, primarily in its inability to imagine through content or form any alternative to the status quo. It never moves past dealing with the appearances of injustice and inequality, and, even more so, deals with these topics on a non-dialectical, oppositional level. His message is stale and out of touch with the processes that would be necessary for actual emancipation from these problems. One of his most famous lyrics from the record is “We’re gonna be alright!”; unfortunately, there is nothing happening in politics today to indicate that this is or could be true. West and Lamar can be seen as the two protagonists of the rap game, the psychological and the anti-psychological, the essence and the appearance. In a sense the most potent political statement one can make in music today is that of a critical engagement with popular forms, and from that angle, West’s music is more offensive than Lamar’s, for while Lamar’s music aims to be offensive on the level of content, West’s is aberrant on the level of form. This is a central point, as art today can likely only be great if it is offensive to some degree; if art today isn’t offensive, it isn’t radical, and if it isn’t radical, it isn’t critical. 

In the end understanding the success of The Life of Pablo would mean understanding the ways in which its supporters are (or are not) in touch with the record’s avant-garde tendencies and its social meaning. For it is not a wholly vanguard work, nor do I believe that West is operating entirely consciously of the record’s contradictions. So the question is actually quite complicated, but also somewhat simple: how can we understand the listener’s enjoyment—and aesthetic experience—of this album? To be sure, people enjoy his beats, his production, his social comportment in public and on the Internet; these things are not abstract from the idea of the record. I wonder whether the success of this album is bound up in some ways with West’s communion with the collective unconscious, with the alienation of life today, with the fact that these are things we all experience (or want to experience), but that only a few are truly conscious of. The thematic blend of simultaneous hopefulness and hopelessness is one that is easy to connect to; furthermore, I can imagine that the album’s undercurrent of religion is attractive to many. If Lamar’s “We’re gonna be alright!” can be understood as a prayer instead of a concrete prognostication, I must say that, even as an atheist, I prefer West’s “We on an ultralight beam/This is a God dream/This is everything.” It seems like less of a lie than telling me I’m going to be alright, which is something I have no reason to believe. What an album like this would need to do to be truly successful on the level of aesthetic experience would be to work even harder to make the unconscious conscious, to make the incomprehensible comprehensible. 

Suffice it to say, West is not beyond dishing out reified consciousness—he believes in the ideals of progress, innovation, and capital. In fact, considering his obsession with Steve Jobs and numerous other entrepreneurs and fashion icons in his music, he could be said to be the consummate reified consciousness artist. West, because of his essential conflation of business and art, has exposed the authentic appearance of the artistic genius under capital: the entrepreneur. And he could be said to have, through his last few records, entered the aesthetic reach and influence of his idol Steve Jobs. The Life of Pablo’s Madison Square Garden release saw the most complex confrontation of these two aspects of West’s cultural identity yet—art and business—and we likely haven’t seen the end of this phase in his career. In the end West’s alienation and dissonance have found their clearest expressions in the songs of The Life of Pablo, making it both his most challenging and most fulfilling record to date.  

 

 Cover of  The Life of Pablo . 

Cover of The Life of Pablo

 

Tim Hecker: Love Streams

by Adam Rothbarth

 

What does it mean to listen to ambient music? And what does it mean to want to listen to ambient music? These are questions that most self-appointed frontiersmen and frontierswomen of musical culture grapple with at one point or another. The most popular account I’ve heard of the attraction to ambient music is that one can put it on while he or she does something else, i.e., one can simultaneously listen to and ignore it. The question then, for me, concerns how to take up a discussion of a particular kind of art whose aesthetic experience involves, for many, the desire to not experience it; or, rather, that experiencing it, for many, requires its subordination to another activity.

The majority of ambient music seems to reside in a form of despair; it exists most often in a state of being, relying merely on the passing of time itself to serve as its dramatic momentum, engaging the listener in a largely static sonic-auratic experience. Music like Brian Eno’s ambient Music for Airports (et al) leaves one suspended in a state of arrhythmic buoyancy, less giving the feeling of a journey than one of floating out in space or in water. I can see why works like this are attractive in certain contexts, and I would be remiss if I claimed never to listen to this kind of music when doing homework or closing my eyes, but I nevertheless always get the feeling that, like the music of Erik Satie—arguably the godfather of ambient music—these works aren’t meant to be listened to and thought about, but felt and, to some degree, ignored.

If great art today should be, as Trotsky said, a protest against reality, then, ideally, popular artists would seek to distinguish themselves by addressing the status quo aesthetic experience, which would mean investigating the act of listening in a unique way. And, of course, this is what the ambients sought to do, to take back time, so to speak, by shifting the focus of the music to its tone, atmosphere, mood, and seeming improvisatory autonomy. Many popular ambient composers rallied against the strophic, repetitive nature of popular music, relying on the predisposition of the modern subject towards constantly hearing music but not actually being able to listen to it. However, instead of attending to the category of tonality as something to be transformed or further critiqued, the ambients and the minimalists—as well as the diaspora of serious postmodern composers after WWII—offered up their own response to the modernist critique of tonality as first nature (the modernist composers critiqued the belief that tonal organization was an a priori musical form). What the modernists such as Schoenberg, Webern, and Stravinsky did to music was akin to what Pollock did to art: they questioned the methods and techniques that had been taken for granted and sought to work through those art forms from within. The response of the ambients and minimalists to these developments seems, however, to gesture more toward submission to the elements of music rather than domination or radicalization of them. What connects the ambients to the modernists, in this case, is that the ambients took themselves to be doing something critical.

Many postmodern ambient and serious composers continue to ruminate on what tonality means, and their tendencies still are often oriented at examining the subject’s reaction to prolonged arpeggiated tonic triads, profoundly extended dominant prolongations, and the slow-motion acoustic or electronic tones and overtones. Some modern ambient composers that engage the latter category seek to penetrate and illuminate the overtone series, to present it as a frozen glacier that one can examine from the outside. Some contemporary composers that have bordered on ambient, like Keith Fullerton Whitman with his Playthroughs and Multiples, actually aim to penetrate tonality itself, investigating what lies in between the waves of single tones. These works are original, then, as they aim to investigate tonality from within, literally. The difference between the Eno school and someone like Whitman (as well as numerous other electronic composers) is that one asks the question “How can tonality be organized after the developments of the first half of the 20th century?” when the other asks “What happens within tonality and do we have the technology to begin to understand it?” While the latter is preferable to me, both in terms of taste and what I believe to be its truth content and critical capacity, it is perhaps the former that advances an immediate truth about music after 1950 and the poverty of postmodernism. Ultimately most of the works in this category throw adherence to formal law out the window, mistaking the appearance of freedom for the actual formal essence of it. There is no envisioning of becoming or of the other, only new methods of being. 

Tim Hecker’s Love Streams is a rich and unique investigation of the intersection of ambient, electronic, and noise music. If one of those categories had to be predominant, I would call it ambient (this is certainly the approach of his live shows). Love Streams isn’t strictly electronic because there are acoustic sounds, including vocal parts, and it isn’t strictly ambient because there are functional passages and many of the songs have some discernible rhythm, even if, in some cases, the rhythm is only given by a fraction of the synthesizer voices or, more frequently, the bass or soprano voice during harmonic sequences. There are numerous classic noise stretches on the record, pointing back to his two most recent LPs Ravedeath, 1972 (2011) and Virgins (2013); “Castrati Stack,” for example, opens with sputtering noise moments, which are given context by the increasingly focused vocal parts orchestrated above, creating a sort of neo-wall of sound effect. Bach, the consummate liturgical composer, conceived of the apex moments of his counterpoint as the point on the holy crucifix where the two straights transversed. In Love Streams Hecker is focused most on the moments where tonality and noise enter into confrontation.

The record is, in fact, often tonally organized, containing both diatonic and modal cadences.  It also takes a unique approach to intonation, which frequently includes beautifully detuned synthesizer sounds, blurring the lines between the 12 established tones of classical tonality, entering into the tradition of 20th-century microtonality. The modal aspects of the record point towards Hecker’s proclaimed interest in 15th century counterpoint and the music of Joasquin Des Prez. The primary difference between the Renaissance counterpoint of Des Prez and that of the subsequent Bach’s Baroque music was the question of tonal organization: in the Renaissance the focus was on the individual melodic lines and an attention to the rules of counterpoint, and any resulting harmony came from the points of vertical intersection between the lines. This is to say that for Des Prez, harmony was a function of counterpoint, whereas for Bach, it could be argued, the counterpoint preceded more from an attention to harmony. 

Songs like “Bijie Dream” reach a level of complexity that is, for me, the ideal of this type of electronic music: to create sounds whose origins seem incomprehensible to the untrained ear and temporalities that feel unfamiliar. The track opens with various synthesizer tones played over an ambiguous bass, all of which come into focus when an ominous, pointillistic sound cluster enters. Perhaps other electronic musicians will understand how Hecker achieves these kinds of sounds, but for the lay listener, it is mysterious and new. In that sense the record evokes moments from Aphex Twin’s recent album Syro—one of the most complex and intricately composed electronic records in recent memory. What is most interesting about “Bijie Dream” is that the synthesizer notes don’t really form any conventional melody, while the sound cluster, in its functionality, could be said to function as both the harmony and melody: the tones that come through to the ear most are the lowered leading tone and tonic, and it is not even clear where those tones are coming from.

In Love Streams Hecker plays with how the subject makes sense of sound in time and questions which faculties are engaged when one is not given a distinct beat or harmony. These are not altogether new interrogations—they are ones that the ambients have been striving for since the 1970s or earlier. Love Streams doesn’t necessarily transcend ambient music, but it does point up some of its possibilities in a unique, and ultimately quite successful, way by synthesizing electronic, acoustic, and noise elements imaginatively and tastefully.

 

 
 Cover of  Love Streams .

Cover of Love Streams.

Laura Poitras: Astro Noise @ The Whitney

by Justin Elm

 

Laura Poitras’s first solo exhibition, on view from February 5 - May 1, 2016 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, investigates our post-9/11 world. Astro Noise, the exhibition’s title, begs the question: what is the nature of mass surveillance? Using video, projections, Wi-Fi, and custom software to create immersive environments, Poitras interprets a 21st century way of existing.

The show opens to a black room with back-to-back projected videos. The two-channel video piece titled O’Say Can You See (2001/2016) juxtaposes video of solemn facial expressions with prisoner interrogation. The facial expressions are the reactions of witnesses to the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center. On the opposite projection, the individuals being interrogated are possible collaborators of al-Qaeda. The intention is to draw a continuous line from one event to the other, a cause-effect analysis. It’s an artificial environment created for the viewer to pass behind the curtain, as it were. O’Say Can You See, as the first installation, makes clear Poitras’s intention to underscore our hyper-surveilled world. 

Poitras wants us, as viewers and citizens, to acknowledge the duality of our mass surveillance state. The questions being asked by the exhibition are familiar: what is the cost of security, are we really free, and who is the villain? 

Unfortunately, the primitive allegory being utilized in her work swiftly turns the exhibition into reductive hyperbole.

As a director and documentarian, Poitras is accustomed to using cinematic techniques to ask said questions, or create a particular narrative. As a medium, cinema is inherently subjective due to its necessity of cutting and arranging during the editing process. Without debating the merits of subjective versus objective art, or whether either is possible, it’s apparent Poitras breaks away from her title as director in order to adopt the title of artist. 

Adopting the title of artist changes the definition of her work from documentary to art object. In this, Poitras attempts to overcome the obstacle of one-sided subjectivity—argumentation—that exists within the documentary framework in order to ratify the exhibition as being objective. Objectivity here, something we too often willingly accept in the art world, implies validity. 

Poitras equates this subjectivity of cinema to passive viewing experience, as noted in the curator’s statement, “‘I’m not interested in a passive viewing experience,’ she notes. ‘Instead, I want to create an environment and narrative experience that challenges the viewer to engage emotionally, physically, and intellectually.’” Poitras assumes objectivity via the authenticity of individual experience, but makes use of the same cinematic techniques that boil down to transparent argumentation. 

The same conclusion can be drawn from the following installation in the exhibition titled Disposition Matrix (2016), in which a corridor of assorted articles alludes to the surveillance programs of both the NSA and GCHQ. Videos, stills, and memorandums embedded in the wall forces the viewer to peer through a narrow opening to try and make out what’s being presented. The installation is an elementary interpretation of uncovering a hidden secret. Due to the restrictive nature of the presentation of these objects, one cannot really see the work at all. Disposition Matrix does not allow a viewer to take in the weight of what’s being presented, it manufactures a feeling Poitras wants us to experience—in turn debasing the weight of the content being presented. 

Bed Down Location (2016) is another manufactured experience, intended to shock and terrify, in which one lies down in order to look up at a digitally projected sky. Oddly reminiscent of James Turrell’s Meeting, it’s not until a drone flies through the sky do we understand the message Poitras has prescribed. Later in the exhibition, she doubles down on her message of being watched from above when the viewer discovers that while one looks up at the artificial sky, a heat sensor looks down at the viewers and live-streams an image of your heat signature to be registered on a separate display. The audience watches the drone, the drone watches the audience, and the audience watches itself.  

The gaping mouths of the viewers after the curtain has been pulled on Poitras’s spectacle is enough to know the work has served its purpose in capitalizing on the nascent anxiety of the audience. 

The gross oversimplification of what Poitras is attempting to discuss assumes that the complexity of today’s political climate can be easily rendered via artistic tropes and cinematic techniques. She positions her truth as being readily available, or just there, as if all we have to do as viewers is open our eyes to see it. Contrast this with a selection of Hito Steyerl’s work, who also has a background in documentary filmmaking. Red Alert (2007), three vertical monitors showing the same shade of red, exists in both the artistic and political realms. The piece is somewhat mawkish due to its heavy reference to Newman, Malevich, Rodchenko, et. al, but avoids the problem of brazenfaced censure by allowing the viewer to approach the work on their own terms. Even Guards (2012), a piece documenting security guards at the Art Institute of Chicago Museum, avoids the same issue by using the editing process to eliminate any emphatic narrative elements that inevitably arise from an interview process.

In truth (one Poitras fails to see) nothing today is readily available. In our society, that unknowable-ness, that other, is channeled into fear-driven domination. 

To paraphrase Hobsbawm, the great fear is back, and Poitras exploits our collective disquiet with precision. As viewers, we abandon our critical faculties and passively absorb (mouths open) the dramatic narrative being projected. Simply stated, it’s an implicit failure on the part of the viewer—an abandonment of our capacity to understand the world in favor of a predetermined and anxiety-driven agenda. Our failure to call domination by its name is the cultivation of domination over ourselves by ourselves, solidifying its already secure position.

The sheer complexity of our world, and a very real inability to comprehend it concretely, is why art is so vital. Art helps us comprehend what we cannot rationally understand; it reveals the otherness of reality and the context in which it matters most. When art tries to force-feed its agenda to the audience, as Poitras’s exhibition attempts, it becomes dogmatic. Poitras debases the dialectical nature of truth in her effort to unveil truth. She wants us to see, but prevents us from really seeing

This is not an argument against her political program or agenda; her project is necessary, worthwhile, and deserves support. Her documentaries have merit and are worth a watch, but re-interpreting them into art installations showcases Poitras’s ignorance of how art functions. Art is not a labor of concepts seeking to persuade us, it’s not logic, and it’s not reason. Her work exists in the same voice and tone as a propagandistic film—it’s trying to persuade us. And this inherent argumentation is precisely what facilitates Poitras’s work to become dogmatic. Art is mimetic and speaks through form; it’s the possibility of something other than self-assertion—precisely Poitras’s failure.  

The collapse of the work doesn’t lie within the content—it’s Poitras’s inability to abstain from using cinematic and artistic tropes and the audience’s passive acceptance of the overwrought spectacle. If the viewer does not attempt to approach the work critically, we as viewers negate the entire project of art as such. Measuring the work against what art can and should do is the only way to successfully navigate a show that feigns being art in the service of dogmatism. Poitrais’s project is progress, and she fails to recognize that said project is indeed functioning as its own opposite—it is only the audience that can point out the failure. When we fail as well, perhaps we are given no less than we deserve. In this, perhaps Poitras really is the great artist she’s being trumpeted as after all. She gives us what we want: self-abandonment in the first degree—and the right to comfortably wave goodbye to critical thought.

 
 Laura Poitras (b. 1964), still from  O’Say Can You See , 2001/2016. Two-channel digital video, color, sound. Whitney.org

Laura Poitras (b. 1964), still from O’Say Can You See, 2001/2016. Two-channel digital video, color, sound. Whitney.org

 
 Laura Poitras (b. 1964), still from  O’Say Can You See , 2001/2016. Two-channel digital video, color, sound. Whitney.org/

Laura Poitras (b. 1964), still from O’Say Can You See, 2001/2016. Two-channel digital video, color, sound. Whitney.org/

 
 Laura Poitras (b. 1964), photos from  Disposition Matrix , 2016. Whitney.org/

Laura Poitras (b. 1964), photos from Disposition Matrix, 2016. Whitney.org/

 
 Laura Poitras (b. 1964), still from  Bed Down Location , 2016. Mixed-media installation with digital color video, 3D sound design, infrared camera, and closed circuit video. Whitney.org/

Laura Poitras (b. 1964), still from Bed Down Location, 2016. Mixed-media installation with digital color video, 3D sound design, infrared camera, and closed circuit video. Whitney.org/

 
 Hito Steyerl (b. 1966), still from Guards, 2012. single-channel HD video, 20 min. loop.

Hito Steyerl (b. 1966), still from Guards, 2012. single-channel HD video, 20 min. loop.