This image was captured by one of the cast members, Evan D'Angeles, in a moment when our rehearsal was interrupted by the fire alarm
The story follows former first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, from her childhood up to the moment at the end of the People Power revolution when she and Ferdinand Marcos flee Manila (the infamous shoes were yet to be discovered, so they are not mentioned). Here Lies Love is entirely true and much of the lyric content comes from speeches and interviews the various characters gave over the years.
The production is a disco musical that I (with occasional help from Fatboy Slim) have been working on for many years. The production is directed by Alex Timbers and features a mostly Filipino cast of amazingly talented actors and singers. To make a long story short—it went amazingly well. Yes, there were problems, but all of them seem fixable. The main issues we were concerned with before the series of live performances were the following:
The answer to both concerns is yes—the staging and the concept work. It works so well that I sort of cried at every performance. I attended all six performances, as we kept making small changes. To be honest, my tears at one show were because the sound mix was so atrocious, but at the others I cried because I was deeply moved by the story and emotions that the actors depicted. Now, one might say, “Sure, he knows the story inside and out,” and some might think that I got emotional because I was simply thrilled by seeing my vision finally realized—but I think some others may have had the same experience. In the end, I'd say it's the best thing I've done since the Stop Making Sense tour—which I guess is saying something.
The music, much of it done in collaboration with Fatboy Slim, is influenced by about 4 decades of dance music, much of which I have posted on this months’ streaming radio playlist. Funk, electro, disco, house, go-go, techno, samba, zouk, dubstep... I could go on and on. The score doesn't follow any particular club style—it hops all over to better represent each character's moment. This playlist is long (over seven hours of inspiration!) and it could have been longer—but this gives you an idea of the many beats and styles that fed into this thing.
Last week I was in Lido, adjacent to Venice, where the annual Venice Film Festival is held. I had been invited to be on the jury and, naively thinking it would be a kind of summer holiday—Venice and movies? Why not?—I agreed to participate. It was hugely enjoyable—Marco Mueller, the festival director, and his team gathered an amazing selection of movies for the competition—it was almost too much of a good thing for us on the jury, so many of the films were worthy.
We watched 23 films in about 10 days, which actually meant 3 films a day on many days, as the opening and closing days were just one film each. There were some breaks—time for local wine and Venetian cuisine—but in general time was tight. I did get to spend a couple of days exploring the art Biennale, which is still up.
I reserved some bikes, as Lido, the island where the festival takes place, is absolutely flat and has few canals. There's an abandoned hospital complex at one end, completely open, WWII bunkers, and even a farm down at the far end of the island.
Most of our time though was spent watching movies, along with the public, sometimes with the filmmakers, actors and producers not too far away.
We were pledged to secrecy, a policy that Jury president, Darren Aronofsky, articulated at our first meeting. He had some previous experiences with leaks and rumors when Black Swan had its debut a year ago, so our meetings after many of the movies were intentionally set apart from others and we never had our big jury meetings at restaurants, as other patrons might overhear our comments.
The jury was a wonderfully mixed bunch; Darren, already mentioned, director Todd Haynes, actress Alba Rohrwacher (I Am Love), theater and film director Mario Martone, director Andre Techine, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, a fine artist who works in film—and myself. Surprisingly, we agreed on most of our choices and favorites, and though there was some dissension, there were no absolute splits or divisions—no animosity.
The choice of winners was hard—there were some great films that could have been included and hopefully those will not vanish or remain obscure for long. Though we tried to be objective, it is a subjective task. Despite claiming we were not prejudiced against popular films or big US productions, we ended up with a pretty artsy selection—very rigorous films that play by their own rules, which we felt all did so beautifully once that world and its rules were established. Many of these are not "easy" movies and I hope we didn't pick them because we thought they were "deserving" or would get overlooked otherwise... or to show how refined and arty we are.
Here we are, at a particularly difficult moment— happily resolved—though I look pretty annoyed in this photo! Maybe I was just squinting in the bright sunlight. (Thanks Alba for forwarding this.)
Here are the winners:
The Golden Lion Award—A re-imagining of Faust using much of the original German text by Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov. I met the actor who played Mephistopheles, the devil, after the awards ceremony—he was a dancer, not an actor and used to play in a band. Sokurov made an impassioned speech at the press conference in which he pleaded for more state and foundation support for the arts and humanities, saying that if we lose our deep culture we are nobodies, nothing. He ended by saying, and this could be a bad translation "We don't need the audience, the audience [the public] needs us!" It bordered on arrogance, but he's certainly got a point.
After the awards he got calls of congratulations from Putin, the first of which he didn't pick up, so Putin called again! Word has it that he said the same things to Putin—that without support, much art and culture will not survive.
The Silver Lion Award went to People Mountian People Sea by Shangjun Cai. It's a film that follows the lead character's descent into Hell in search of the killer of his brother. We see a side of China most of us have never seen before—junkies, shantytowns, illegal mines and a criminal underclass—so not surprisingly this film was not announced in the running until it was certain that the director and the film had made it to Venice. Even so, the first screening was cancelled due to glitches in the download of the film file from China, the second screening was interrupted by a fire scare in which the theater was evacuated and the third screening was interrupted as well, for technical reasons. One might be tempted to look for a conspiracy...
Special Jury Prize (effectively 3rd place) went to Terraferma by Emanuele Crialese. This was the most accessible and popular of our selections, a film that deals with changing economics on a small volcanic island off the coast of Italy and the influx of African immigrants/illegals. A timely subject and beautifully shot. Many of the "actors" were real fishermen and recent African immigrants who had gone through similar experiences. One of the main actors, an older man, is, in real life, a clown. The young male lead was worthy of a prize, though we decided early on to "spread the wealth" and not double up prizes.
Best actor went to Michael Fassbender for his work in Steve McQueen's Shame. As with his work with McQueen on Hunger, Fassbender goes places most actors wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. This film is about a sex addict, so you can imagine. Carey Mulligan is surprising as well, miles from the sweet girl we've come to know in recent movies.
Best actress went to Deanie Yip for her role in A Simple Life, a film by Ann Hui. In this film she plays an aging woman (much older than the actress) who is cared for her doting son in a Hong Kong retirement home.
The Marcello Mastroianni Award for best new young actor went to Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido for their roles in Sion Sono's Himizu. This film, as Todd said, captures the violent mood swings and alternately inflated and deflated world of adolescence in a way that is sometimes crazy, sometimes brutal and sometimes funny. The film also reflects the increasing disaffection and alienation that young Japanese feel for their elders and their government, especially in the wake of the tsunami and the nuclear events that followed.
Best technical award went to Robbie Ryan for his work as DP on Andrea Arnold's new radical reworking of Wuthering Heights. If you've seen her previous films, Red Road and Fishtank, you know she has strong visual ideas and Ryan has been instrumental in realizing the varying looks in all of those. This one, set on bleak moors of England, was stunning.
Best screenplay went to Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou for Alps, Lanthimos' film about a secretive group who offer to substitute themselves for the deceased for grieving parties. Anyone who has seen his film Dogtooth (which I loved) will know what they're in for. Fairly affectless acting and lots of serious ideas about identity, acting, and some very dry humor as well. Pretty much unlike any film you've ever seen.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from our jury meetings. Maybe I will reveal the film and author of the quotes later. Maybe not.
I went to London this week to do a couple of days of press and promotion for Ride, Rise, Roar—the concert doc on my last tour that Hillman Curtis directed. One piece I did before I got there, for the Sunday Times Magazine, will come out this weekend, and they have a headline that apparently quotes me saying, “Simon Cowell is the Antichrist.” Ah, the British press, always taking the high road. The Times, lest one forget, is owned by a Mr. Murdoch, and was once a venerable, though incredibly stodgy, paper (WSJ—your days are numbered). They were so reserved, in a British sort of way, that they didn’t run news on the front page—ugh, too garish and unbecoming! How Times have changed. I was sent an advance copy and had a jolt—Did I really say that? It doesn’t sound like something I’d say! Then, hours later, I seemed to remember saying something like “The Sex Pistols are not the antichrist [a reference to one of their lyrics]; Simon Cowell is the antichrist.” By which I meant to convey that the devil will not arrive in an obvious way—as a snarling beast or as an anarchist rebel, that would be too easy—but as a smooth corporate dealmaker. I didn’t read any more of the article, so I have no idea what other mischief they may have stirred up.
After two days of almost non-stop talking, I had a full day off (though in the evening there would be a screening and I would do a Q&A afterwards). I decided to try what are referred to here as Boris Bikes—a bike hire system (the mayor of London’s name is Boris) that was recently installed. It is modeled after the French Velib system. Barclays Bank is a sponsor (Boris sold naming rights of the program for £25 million, officially naming the system Barclays Cycle Hire) so they get prominently placed ads on the mudguards and bag holder. Would a US bank do the same? One Goldman Sachs exec’s bonus would probably cover a whole city’s worth of these things.
Anyway, here’s how they do—and sometimes don’t—work.
They have hundreds of these stations in central London, with most stations only a few blocks from one another. There is an online map, a print map and a downloadable PDF that shows where they all are.
There was a station behind my hotel, so that’s where I went first. If you are a subscriber you have an electronic key, which is sent to you, and you insert it into a docking point and a bike is released. If you are a foreigner or “casual user,” as I am, you go to the touch screen, agree to terms—as you would on any online purchase—swipe your debit or credit card, and you’re given a simple number code, which will unlock the bike from the holder.
£1 for 24 hours, no charge for the first half hour and then charges that ramp up after that. This is to encourage fairly short trips—all of mine were, it turned out, under 30 minutes, so I wasn’t charged for time. Hundreds of pounds if a bike is not returned.
Of course, if you’re riding out of the current coverage area in the central city you’re screwed. But presumably the system will expand to Hackney and Shepherd’s Bush. You soon get the concept—that you are meant to drop your bike near your destination, and then pick up a new one at that station when you make your return trip. If both trips are under 30 minutes there are no charges. That afternoon I made 5 trips—hopping from gallery to museum to lunch joint, and it worked with only a few hitches. All legs of my trip were under 30 minutes.
The bikes themselves are sturdy (as you’d expect), with only 3 gears—London has few hills, so it turns out 3 gears is plenty. There are fenders and mudguards, a bell, and front and rear lights that work automatically—powered by a turbine on the wheel hub. They’re heavy beasts—so carrying them up some stairs to a bridge, as I did, was a thing, but on the roads I kept up with the folks on their own bikes, so didn’t feel at a disadvantage.
Problems—yes, there are some. The first time I tried to rent a bike at the station near my hotel it couldn’t read my card. A local arrived, and it didn’t read his stick either. I called the help line to alert them, and the next day it was working (I walked a few blocks to the next station the first day). Usage patterns generate their own set of problems. One station near an art gallery I went to in the Mayfair district was full—there was nowhere to leave my bike, and the clock was ticking! This happened again at another station (Barbican) and I had to once more seek a station a few blocks further away. Likewise, I’ve heard that some stations are more popular than others, and all the bikes are quickly taken. In Paris and Montreal there are trucks that ferry bikes too and fro to remedy this situation. I heard that in Paris no one rides up to the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, but once there everyone grabs a bike and rides down the hill, so the station at the top is continually running out of bikes. The bikes have fat tires, so street bumps are cushioned a bit. One bike I had needed some gear adjustment—though it still worked. None had flats and all were clean and in good shape.
I saw lots of locals riding them—it’s becoming an accepted way of getting around here. While I was there the weather stayed dry, so I was spared dealing with the British rain. I have a feeling the locals are always prepared with collapsible nylon rain ponchos always ready in their bags. It was incredibly efficient—London traffic, despite congestion pricing, is still painfully slow at some times of day. The streets wind and meander, so a bike is often as fast as a cab, and way faster than the tube or a bus on shorter trips.
One night while I was here I went to have dinner with some friends in Stoke Newington, a charming village-like neighborhood that hasn’t changed much, as there is no tube station nearby—so it’s not convenient for commuters. On the advice of my friends I took the bus back to my hotel (number 73 all the way). I went upstairs, and sitting in the front, 2 seats ahead of me in the almost empty bus, was a man a little older than me (my estimate) with a big gray beard and a scraggly fringe of gray hair. The minute I took my seat he recognized me, and soon after began to chat, in between swigs of a massive bottle of Pepsi. He volunteered, “I’d like to express my creative thoughts, but I’m mentally ill,” conveniently dispelling any questions or doubts I might have had on the matter. I replied that a piece of paper and pencil is all one needs, to start with anyway. But he wasn’t sure. Then he said he liked “keyboard rock,” and I must have looked a little puzzled as he clarified himself —“Emerson, Lake and Palmer.” I don’t know their music, so I didn’t really have a way to engage on that matter. He seemed like a nice man, not scary in any way, though I’d lay off the massive quantities of Pepsi if I were him.
In the afternoon I rode up by Primrose Hill to The Museum of Everything—which is somewhat what it says it is. On the way I passed what from a distance looked like either a decrepit Disney ride or a massive outdoor opera set.
When I got closer, some folks told me it was an abandoned “mountain range” that used to be the habitat for some mountain goats—it was part of the London Zoo. They said it was “listed,” meaning it’s a landmark, and that I might catch a glimpse of some warthogs around the corner—I didn’t.
The Museum of Everything has only been open a short while. Previous shows focused on “outsider” art, an interest of mine, so I was aware of this place tucked behind a public library. The current show is of the collection of Peter Blake, the pop artist best known for collaborating on the Sgt. Pepper cover. He collected old circus banners and posters, elaborate embroideries by a war veteran (my personal favorites) and old sideshow and funfair paraphernalia—lots of it. Great place.
In another few rooms were displayed amazing dioramas by Walter Potter of posed stuffed animals—not tigers and bears, but squirrels, frogs, mice, dogs and cats—all set up in hilarious domestic scenes: playing badminton, boxing, having a picnic and lounging at a pub. One giant diorama called The Peaceable Kingdom had cats, mice and dogs all hanging out comfortably together.
At a gallery in Mayfair there was a show of Cindy Sherman’s new work—wallpaper with pictures of her on it, of course. The outfits were hilarious—a mish-mosh of oddball costumes and ill-fitting items found in someone’s closet. The scale of the images would have been imposing, and even uncomfortably overwhelming, except that possibility was undercut by the fact that is was, well, wallpaper.
The Serpentine gallery in Hyde Park had a show of videos by Philippe Parreno. One featured a Chinese kid and some imaginary friends made of scratches of the film emulsion that reminded me a little of Donnie Darko (one of the imaginary friends was a human size bunny). Another video recreated Paul Fusco's photos of people who turned out to watch the train bearing Bobby Kennedy’s body go by after he was assassinated. These photos were taken from the train in the mid-sixties, and the video recreated the clothes, hairstyles and cars of that period. It was moving to watch for me—the mixture of black and white folks who turned out, men standing in grassy fields, kids sitting and staring, all watching a slow moving train go by. But there was no wall explanation, so I wondered if I was the only one who knew what this was supposed to be in reference to. One had to know the original photos as well, or so I imagine. The Londoners couldn’t possibly know what it was meant to depict, even if the leaflet at the gallery entrance told them—most folks don’t read those. What’s the thinking here? Were there stories behind the others as well?
At the end of this 10 minute film the window blinds raised on motors, and we saw artificial snow falling outside the windows—a lovely effect, as it looked almost, though not quite, real, but not sure how it relates to the videos.
At the Tate Modern there was a room of Soviet Russian posters. This same room had a show of Soviet avant-garde magazine designs from years earlier. Most of the posters were made in the late ‘20s and ‘30s when Stalin came into power, and they were chilling—though once again, one had to know a little to understand why they were so creepy. These were plastered up everywhere at the time—in every little village—to encourage Stalin’s drive for industrialization and the collectivization of the farms. This latter drive was unbelievable in its cold-blooded ruthlessness. It’s estimated that 30 million died of starvation as a result of this effort, especially in the Ukraine—the farming and breadbasket that fed the rest of the Soviet Union.
Here is a poster encouraging the hounding of Kulaks—roughly middle class farmers who were not wealthy by any means. These folks were driven off their lands, and the state took over and ran things as badly and inefficiently as one can imagine. I’m not entirely opposed to the state narrowing the gap between the very rich and the horribly poor, but this was the gutting of the middle class. The poster, called “Drive the Kulaks off the Kolkhoz!” is attributed to Sergei Ivanov in 1930.
Looks a little anti-Semitic, would you say? Nice shirt though! This was 1930—well before Hitler’s rise.
Then up to the Barbican center where there was a survey of 4 decades of Japanese fashion design. A large exhibition—it occupies 2 floors (but it could be even larger), as some of these folks have done such radical stuff and have left such a radical legacy, that it’s hard to absorb it all in a survey like this—but it gives a taste.
They did point out that Kenzo, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto—some of the early innovators—brought the Japanese aesthetic of not revealing the body very much to Western fashion—a strange idea at the time. Their clothes weren’t tight or conventionally sexy, rather they were floppy and baggy, with the wearer semi-hidden in a kind of fabric cocoon.
Of course there were other more formal and material innovations as well: clothes made of bamboo, clothes made entirely of one piece of fabric, clothes with extremely subdued color palettes. Sort of conceptual clothes that don’t always flatter the wearer in the normal sense, they were more like artworks in a way. They didn’t reveal their charm or beauty immediately, in fact some looked ugly the first time you see them.
A younger generation—Jun Takahashi, Tao Kurihara, Fumito Ganryo, Matohu, and Akira Naka—have loosened up a little, with some body hugging zones and more bright colors, but the formal and material innovations haven’t stopped. Here’s one made of what looked like a plastic news printed top and shredded documents for a skirt:
It looks like something made from recycled materials in Africa, but I’m sure it cost a fortune!
Another outfit included a matching parasol/hat and large bulbous things around the hips, like Victorian bustles turned slightly to the front.
Some of this younger generation of designers attended St Martins College of Art and Design here in London, but they moved back to Tokyo to begin their practice—an interesting amalgamation of cultures at work.
Last night was the screening of the tour doc Ride Rise Roar, and I did my flogging-the-product-bit by doing an on-stage Q&A with writer Paul Morley after the film ended. It was held at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton—a lovely old converted music hall with a bar/lounge upstairs. There was a satellite truck outside and about 47 cinemas round the UK had simultaneous screenings (projected digitally—not so expensive as it would have been with 35mm) and the Q&A was beamed to them live as well.
Elly (La Roux), whose show I’d seen at Terminal 5 in NY, came by with some of her pals—she lives close by, as is the studio where she’s working on a new record. We chatted about tour disasters. I was flattered.
Went to Antony's show last night at the renovated Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, which was part of Jane Moss’ White Light Festival—a performance series more calm, Catholic and spiritual than most. This show featured Antony with the Orchestra of St Luke’s, as well as Thomas Bartlett from Antony’s band on piano. The sound in the renovated theater was spectacular. Congrats to Diller Scofidio + Renfrew on their work there; as well as turning what was a socially dysfunctional lobby into a real and vibrant space where some people seemed to be hanging out who weren’t even going to the concert.
The arrangements were by different people, and Nico Muhly described his contributions as being sometimes difficult, but always sight-readable. This was a practical consideration, as Antony toured this show (without the accompanying film) around the world, and at each stop needed to rehearse and perform with a new local orchestra. With limited rehearsal time, the arrangements had to sound good given the time allotted. And last night, they did—some were atmospheric, establishing a slowly shifting ground over which Antony could pour out his heart.
The music portion was accompanied by a film called Mr O’s Book Of The Dead by Kazuo Ohno, a groundbreaking Japanese Butoh dancer who passed away earlier this year. This film, something I’ve never seen before, was contemporaneous with the wild films by Jack Smith made in NY in the ‘60s. Here is a production snap from Smith’s Flaming Creatures.
Apparently, Ohno and Smith didn’t know one another’s work, but the results were remarkably similar. It made one think that this primal dress-up and cavorting style was in the zeitgeist—a case of parallel evolution, one might say. As if it had to appear at that moment, in different spots around the world. A response and evocation of something that was expressed in exactly this way, and now what exactly that was is not obvious to us…though one can see the lineage that extends to Antony pretty clearly.
Here is Ohno (though this is not a still from Mr O’s Book of the Dead).
For those who associate Butoh with the cosmic elegance of Sankai Juku, the troupe who perform semi-naked, covered in powder as if slowly enacting some deep profound and ancient ritual, the group in Ohno's film would be a shock. While there are white-powdered bodies in both, the group in the film also sports tacky women’s clothing and wigs, and in one scene cavorts in a pigsty—the style is a radical departure. And though sometimes profound, more often these Butoh groups evoke the chaos, repulsion and horrors of postwar Japan. Elegant, it’s not; groundbreaking it was—which is why I suppose Antony wanted to bring it to the attention of his fans, and on Halloween Eve no less! It’s a way of showing where he comes from as well.
Anyway, I can’t speak to the other programs in the festival, but seeing this one made me feel that the old, weird (and beautiful) New York that one often hears eulogized so often, as if it is a thing never to be seen again, is still with us.
Midtown Market/Exchange — the former Sears headquarters in Minneapolis. A tornado warning had been lifted a couple of hours earlier. There’s great Mexican food in here, and the famous Holy Land lunch and grocery, home of the jalapeño hummus, is here as well. A few years ago it was a derelict, empty shell. The upper floors house a medical facility, not a hospital.
Minneapolis just got voted best biking city in the US by Bicycling Magazine, beating out Portland and New York City. The US Census rated the city #2.
Last Thursday they instituted a bike share program called Nice Ride — an obvious sexual innuendo that was never mentioned. I was in town for one of my bikes and cities and the future of getting around panels, so I tried the system out — twice. Here’s how it works.
There are bike stations all over a large section of town, covering downtown, and areas known as midtown and uptown (which are actually south and southwest of downtown). Each station has a map showing where the other stations are, so you know where to head for — most are within a few blocks of typical destinations.
Obviously you can also go to their website, where there’s a physical map showing the station locations as well. You slide in a credit card (debit cards are no good — pin code entry is an issue) and decide how many bikes you want. You get the first 30 minutes totally free — your card isn’t charged. After those 30 minutes are up, the fees kick in, ramping up the longer you hold onto the bike. You have unlimited 30 minute chunks available to you within a 24-hour period of your rental — all at no charge. The idea is to encourage short trips, not long, leisurely day trips. You don’t have to return the bikes to the station where you got them… you typically abandon your bike at a station near your destination. When you’ve done your business there and want to return home, or to your hotel in my case, you go back to the station, re-insert your credit card and are issued a release code number. You can repeat this process as many times as you like in the 24-hour period and not be charged. I made one trip to Dero, a company that makes bike racks, and then later to the Uptown Theater, where the event was.
You can also get a yearly unlimited pass, which comes in the form of a stick you can attach to your keychain. When inserted into a slot at the stations it releases a bike instantly.
How are the bikes? Pretty good. They’re made by Bixi in Montreal, where one of these systems is already in place. The Minneapolis bikes look nicer and are easy to spot, as they’re electric green. They’re super sturdy, of course, and have only three gears — which is plenty for a flat city like Minneapolis (or New York, or Melbourne, Australia, which is initializing their own system in a couple of weeks). There is a carrier contraption in front with non-removable bungee cords, which worked fine for me to attach my laptop bag. There are front and rear lights powered by hidden dynamos — so no batteries to replace. Mud and chain guards mean you can wear normal or office clothes and not worry about getting grease stains or puddle splatters. They’re not lightweight — this isn’t a sports bike by any means — but in a flat town like this it’s no problem.
Luckily, my destinations were located in opposite directions reachable by the midtown greenway, a beautiful bike and pedestrian avenue that goes all the way across town — from the lakes to the Mississippi. It was a former rail line and for years had been abandoned — a gully filled with abandoned shopping carts and the detritus of the homeless. A few years ago it was cleaned up, and more recently the two-way bike and ped lanes were put in. There were lots of folks using it — it was gorgeous on a sunny day like today.
It’s like an expressway — you exit via ramps. The next step is to tie in the local businesses along the way a little more.
In the early afternoon, I went to the local public radio station, where a few years ago they instituted a station with a new format called The Current, that plays more music than the usual talk and current affairs programming of most public radio. They feature local music and various kinds of alternative or indie music. Needless to say, it’s hugely popular. A guy from the station would be a moderator at the bikes and cities event later.
Then I went to visit Dero, a company that manufactures bike racks to serve various, mostly practical, specific needs: cluster racks for colleges around the country, lightweight ones that can be dropped into position for temporary events, standard U-shaped ones, and I saw a prototype for a sheltered double-decker system. The upper level rail slides down so you don’t have to hoist your bike up.
They’re busy fulfilling lots of orders. We’re in discussion about some custom-designed racks for specific cities in the near future, but have to get through some red tape first.
Outside their warehouse is a sensor powered by some solar cells.
Employees can attach a little electronic thingie to their spokes, which causes the sensor to beep when they ride by.
They are then rewarded by the company for riding to work, and receive a financial credit. New York has a similar law that employees can get tax credits or financial rewards for riding — though having an automated system makes it a no-brainer.
The panel in Minneapolis was typical of these events; the makeup was a city person, an advocate, a historian/planner and myself. On this one we were joined by Mayor R.T. Rybak, who has been instrumental in getting these programs pushed through. He’s so popular that no one wanted to run against him in the last election. This event was under the umbrella of “Policy and a Pint,” a series of gatherings organized by the same local NPR radio station, in which they encourage having a beer while discussing policy. At the Uptown the excellent local beers were dispersed in the theater lobby, which slowed down the seating considerably, but allowed everyone to loosen up a little.
I got lots of laughs during my slide talk, which was satisfying. I guess it’s turned into a PowerPoint standup routine, with a bit of advocacy in there as well. I’ve adjusted my own presentation since I started doing these about a year ago — now I end on a more optimistic note, mentioning programs that are being instigated in lots of cities. It’s not just about bikes either — they’re merely part of a larger movement to make our cities more livable. There’s a groundswell in many US cities to make them more pleasant, to improve the quality of life. Many of these changes involve giving cars less priority. Even car-centric cities like LA and Dallas are building park-like things that cover over parts of their freeways; high-speed bus lanes are being installed; and pedestrian zones are being expanded.
As usual, most of the questions during the Q&A after our talks were directed to the city person — in this case, the mayor. Big cheers… as he responded to some of the queries affirmatively, announcing plans for expansion and additions to current projects. The event was becoming less a presentation and more a rally and celebration.
We had to wrap up by nine, as the Uptown Theater was screening the Joan Rivers documentary.
On to Chicago. Nice show of H. C. Westermann’s series of prints “See America First” at the Art Institute. He became known in the late ’50s and ’60s, but was maybe a little too unclassifiable to really become super well-known. He was a big inspiration for a lot of others, though.
The big show there was of a particular era (1913-17) when Matisse got a bit “experimental.” Needless to say it is a popular show, but for my money it’s a little bloated — there are maybe half a dozen super amazing and surprising paintings, and the rest is context and backstory.
To some these might look unfinished — but he worked long and hard on them, though they don’t betray a lot of that time and effort. One wall text mentioned that WWI was quite a disturbing and disruptive event at that time — which is sort of an understatement, but it seems it had some shakeup effect on Henri. These were quite a bit different than his earlier work.
Later in the afternoon there was a freak storm — windows blew out on the Sears (now Willis) tower, a McDonald’s drive thru sign got blown away, and the skylight of the Goose Island brewery, one of the bike event sponsors, got sucked out of their ceiling. Over 200,000 folks lost power. Earlier that day I was told that the “windy city” moniker is deceptive — that Chicago is not really all that windy…
“Sean Maloney was on the 68th floor of the [Willis] building Friday afternoon when he said he felt the building begin to sway. Open doors started slamming shut. A colleague suddenly slid across the floor in his chair. Looking out toward the west, Maloney could see a dark wall of clouds bearing down on the city.
Blocks of concrete fell from the Aon Center.”
I think they’d better stick with Windy City.
The bike event was at the Cultural Center, which used to be a fancy downtown public library. Here is the ceiling of a room with a Tiffany glass skylight — unaffected by the storm. There was a wedding reception about to begin there, so I was shooed out.
The bikes and cities event was not as exciting as the storm, though Chicago is expanding their network of bike lanes and is going to initiate some high-speed bus routes soon too. It’s cold here in the winter, but there are folks who bike to work all year round, so there.
Florence and the Headscarves
Went to Florence and The Machine’s show at Terminal 5 a couple of weeks ago. She’s one of the singers on the Here Lies Love project (title song), and her record has blown up in the UK. She came out in a “dress” that looked like a jellyfish trailing tentacles and proceeded to sing full out for the whole show.
I was on the balcony, and in the area in front of the stage I could see a young woman in a headscarf with her friends, bopping to the music and singing along. Don’t think I had ever seen this before and it gave the lie to many of our preconceptions about gals in headscarves. It was very moving. We’ll take our optimism where we can get it. In my phone video you can barely make her out — she’s in the middle on the left side, about ¼ of the way in.
The other day I watched a Brazilian film called Saudade do Futuro, a documentary about Northeastern musicians in São Paulo. This means the poor Northeast in Brasil, not Northeast as in Connecticut. The film is very poetic — there is almost no voice over, and almost no didactic explanations of what we’re seeing — but those techniques are made unnecessary because the style of music — forró, and especially repentismo — tell the stories of the singers’ harsh lives in the lyrics. The latter style consists of rap/rhyming duels, with the singers also playing pandeiros (tambourines with heads, to us northerners). They describe how they had to leave the Northeast — as Luiz Gonzaga did decades ago — and their struggles to survive in the big city. There’s a lot of humor and innuendo in the lyrics as well. Years ago I went to a forró club in SP and it was lovely — great dancing and live music blasting over a horrific PA system.
The filmmakers intersperse the musical scenes with poetic footage of São Paulo — the stock exchange, the street bustle, the commuter trains — that also have a kind of musicality to them. It all fits together in a way that is lovely but inexplicable.
I saw Caetano Veloso’s show here recently at Terminal 5. He’s touring with a band led by guitarist Pedro Sá. The music from his last two records is minimal and raw — rock with a subtext of samba. Lyrics about relationships gone bad, the US base at Guantanamo and drug addicts. Not exactly feel good stuff — but he manages inevitably to make it enjoyable and even beautiful. His pleasure in performing was infectious. It was the best sound mix I’ve ever heard at Terminal 5.
Sunday night I saw Céu, a singer who is one of the exponents of the kind of electronic-roots hybrids now coming out of Brasil. She does a very contemporary kind of music that’s informed by a myriad of historical (mostly Brazilian) styles. The band was, like Caetano’s, minimal — bass, drums, keyboards, and a guy who played samples by using discs as a DJ might… but in this case he played the discs manually, triggering sounds off his laptop. In the last few years she’s gotten hugely popular — well, everywhere except the USA. I expect that might change soon.
I recently got an email from Annie-B Parson, the choreographer/director who helped on my last tour. She’s in France, where The Anticodes Festival is funding development of a new show by her group Big Dance Theater, and the company is touring their previous show. She said some of her choreographer/dancer pals were upset at Tino Sehgal’s piece that just closed at the Guggenheim. To some of these folks, it seemed like “cheating” — the idea of putting a theatrical/performance/dance work (it is choreographed, in a way) into what is certainly a more financially lucrative context. A museum presumably pays more than doing a similar show at Dance Theater Workshop or The Kitchen.
Of course, Sehgal’s piece is somewhat conceived specifically for museums and art spaces — I saw it at the ICA in London, another art space which, like the Guggenheim, was emptied out to become a rambling shell expressly for this performance piece. It’s true this particular piece wouldn’t work on a conventional, theatrical proscenium stage — but in quite a few alternative performance venues it wouldn’t be too much out of place.
The piece consists of a series of hired people, of ascending ages, who one at a time engage the visitor in “conversation” while leading them around the institution to an encounter with the next conversationalist, who replaces the previous one. In my experience I took it all in naturally — I’m sort of used to being asked curious philosophical questions by total strangers, so this didn’t seem out of the ordinary at all. Well, not much anyway. In London I answered the questions the conversationalists asked sincerely, and didn’t notice the ascending age aspect, or much else, until it was maybe half over. There’s a whole structure here! Duh. I also didn’t try to subvert the piece or ask meta questions such as, “Do you get tired asking the same questions all the time?” It seemed that if one were to experience the piece one had to play along.
As a theater piece it’s unusual, though I’ve seen quite a few that are site-specific. Anne Hamburger, who later became an executive at Disney, did a bunch of site-specific works in abandoned theaters when 42nd St. was mostly shuttered, and one in the Meatpacking District at night when it was still a derelict zone at that hour. There were elements of urban archeology as well as narrative mixed together in those pieces. Noémie LaFrance has staged dance shows in a stairway and in a parking structure. Other theater pieces I’ve seen required interaction and audience movement as well. There’s one that was done in London recently in which the actors are anonymous bodies milling about in a train station crowd, but the audience — seated on benches nearby — can hear them via radio mics… and soon enough can follow a little drama that takes place. So the argument that the Guggenheim show is something in which the context has been changed is not without validity, though I would say that as it seems to have been conceived specifically for these large rambling spaces, it isn’t as much a fish in a different pond as some might claim.
Others have had issues with Sehgal’s business savvy that also relate to context issues. The NY Times reported that he “sold” the rights to a different piece to MoMA for 70k — whatever that means. (Does it mean that it can only be performed under the auspices of whoever now “owns” the piece? And can they presumably have it performed, like hanging a picture they own on a wall, wherever and how often they like?) Maybe the poverty-stricken alternative theater and dance folks got wind of this new kind of transaction and are jealous or incensed that he found a way to cash in on the same kinds of work they’ve been doing for years — except most of them haven’t been getting anywhere near that kind of cash. Should one congratulate him, or is he in fact “cheating”? Would they even want to “sell” a piece in this manner?
When artists who do live pieces perform them in galleries, I’ve been informed that they might not get paid, or at least not much — and admission to galleries, unlike many museums, is free for all, so there isn’t that source of income from which to draw. Often photos of the piece or other ephemera are sold to in effect fund the performance.
Last week I went to the Whitney Biennial and there were a number of pieces I really loved. Pae White’s giant woven piece depicting smoke blew me away (pun intended), but four others struck me as being all about this context issue. Kelly Nipper’s five minute video of a masked woman dancing is, in my opinion, weirdly out of context — much more so than the Sehgal pieces might be construed as being. It’s a single screen video of a short dance. The soundtrack is someone counting numbers. Whether it’s a good dance or performance or not is besides the point — it seems to me it’s better suited for the Whitney’s short film screenings, or a collection of shorts on DVD like Wholphin. Actually, it wouldn’t fit that well on Wholphin, but someone should start a DVD “magazine” of dance and performance work, and there it would be perfect. Similarly, Rashaad Newsome’s almost 7 minute long video of voguing without music has some conceptual underpinning about the movement and gestures being passed on — but it’s pretty much some nice voguing with the typical music removed. Nice to see some cool voguing, but refer to the previous dance piece for suggested placement. Jesse Aron Green’s 80 minute video of some folks doing old (1858) German exercises is an interesting idea, but again, why here?
The work is a dance piece shot — or rather, documented — with a video camera. Lastly there is Marianne Vitale’s video — an 8 minute harangue regarding an imaginary philosophy called neutralism — which is funny and disturbing, but this one really could be included in Wholphin.
I hate being negative about anyone’s work — and I hope this doesn’t come across that way — but in these cases I have to agree with Annie-B’s friends, as I feel that the recontextualization doesn’t add anything. In fact it makes one less likely to watch the whole thing! I might sit down for an 80 minute video of a dance piece at home — or go to a screening, if it is sufficiently filmic… or even watch it at a gathering of friends. But on a hard bench in a museum, no way. The Sehgal piece belongs in a museum much more than these do, in my opinion.
Annie-B pointed out the other day that dance is notoriously hard to film. When we experience dance, or any performance, she suggests that we simultaneously get the big pictures and the details — we see the shapes and bodies moving about on a stage, how the thing is organized, and at the same time, we see individual performers’ bodies and faces. Perceptually, we see with our minds both close-ups and wide shots at the same time. Not everyone is in agreement with this. Others have told me they think we “edit” between the two — making choices as to what to focus on. This would explain why film editing isn’t more jarring to us than we might expect.
Obviously video and film can jump from one to another via edits, or do split screens, but they can’t quite duplicate that experience — that simultaneity — to say nothing of the social/physical experience of being part of an audience. Multiple screens can sort of do it. Annie-B believes that an installation with one screen showing a wide shot and another showing details comes vaguely close. One can be aware of the intensity of an individual performer and at the same time how they relate to the whole… but it’s still a weird substitute. The wide shot that comprises the German exercise video only gives us part of the picture, for example — and a part that is, objectively, the whole thing — but subjectively much of the emotion that we would derive from closer shots is missing.
Not only dance videos, but a lot of experimental film has recontextualized itself over the last couple of decades. Relatively short videos and films (between 10 minutes and an hour) are often shown in galleries inside black sheetrock boxes, usually with just that same uncomfortable bench for viewers to sit on. There are no “showtimes” and no sense of where one is when one enters the “theater.” You could be near the end or still have an hour to go, there’s no way of knowing. Full disclosure: I’ve done this myself with some of the short (4 minute) PowerPoint-generated videos I created. Most of the time these are not like the above works — documentations of performances — but works in which the editing, the effects, and the manipulation of the footage all contribute.
For filmmakers who show in galleries, the possible upside is that their work can, in this context, be sold for thousands of times more than what these same filmmakers with the exact same work would net from screenings at Anthology, IFC and similar venues. Those film houses used to show the works of Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Bruce Conner, the Kuchar brothers and others — work that is not entirely dissimilar from what’s in galleries today. Sometimes, in purely visual terms, the 16mm films they made in earlier decades were easier on the eye than contemporary video works — they had higher resolution, and film, until recently, was simply nicer looking than many of the grainy videos shown in galleries. Film grain in general is nicer than video grain or pixels.
I think that when these works are shown in galleries they are generally sold in limited editions to collectors for sizable sums. What does that mean? Does it mean that the new owner can show them to their friends at their homes but no one else has access to the work? Imagine having one of five copies of, say, Pink Flamingos? Or Gus Van Sant’s Elephant? No one else would know about the film from then on except by hearsay — which, depending on your taste or lack of it, might be considered a good thing. It would be like only seeing the masterpieces — like the one Steve Wynn put his arm through, or the Barnes collection — in reproduction, unless they were lent out from time to time.
One might think these artists are cashing in, but I’m informed that the cash part might actually be negligible. While many more folks may see their work as they pass through the Whitney, for example, the artists would presumably have previously shown the work in a gallery, whose attendance is nothing like the crowds at major museums. Those galleries actually have a pretty hard time selling most video works, so the change of context can’t be all about money in many of these cases. Prestige or glory maybe, but not strictly cash.
At least these videomakers and filmmakers who show in galleries have found a way to get their work out there. Or some have, at least. At last, some might say. Brakhage and many others used to teach to support themselves. They taught young folks how to make films somewhat like theirs… folks who, until this new situation arose, would inevitably be looking to replace Stan at his teaching position before too long. The British artist Steve McQueen used to show in the gallery/museum context, and still does sometimes, but his film Hunger, about hunger striker Bobby Sands, was shown in cinemas. I saw it in Wellington, New Zealand! Likewise Sam Taylor-Wood used to show videos on flat screens in galleries — and maybe she still does — but her latest is a regular feature on the childhood of John Lennon. Cindy Sherman made a movie, as did Robert Longo, David Salle and Julian Schnabel. But those folks didn’t really ever try to survive showing short films or videos — that’s the difference. Matthew Barney does show his films in cinemas, though I doubt these theatrical runs recoup the cost of making the nice prints and ads. I suspect it’s his sculptures that pay for the movies — though the DVDs are sold in limited editions in super elaborate packages. You essentially get an artwork that happens to have a DVD tucked inside it.
Granted, many gallery and museum video installations aren’t things that could ever be screened in cinemas; they are immersive pieces that can’t be experienced in any other way — they have multiple or oddly shaped screens, for example. But… even so, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls was shown on multiple screens simultaneously too, and in regular movie theaters. But despite the success of that film, he mostly had to churn out silkscreens to fund his films — the recontextualization wasn’t an effective financial strategy.
Sometimes the switch in context goes the other way. Not too long ago MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach did a reversal of this at P.S.1. He took all the episodes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz and screened them simultaneously in a museum — as if it were an art installation! There was a circular construction that filled a large room, with all the episodes running at once; in other spaces there were larger fragments from the series projected on screens. Later the films of Kenneth Anger were screened at P.S.1 as well — in a large, dark, rubberized space — again with many films running simultaneously. These were pretty cool environments, immersive and considered, though free of any narrative or episodic structures that might be inherent in the works. They are also miles away from what the filmmakers might have envisioned when they made the work.
At a recent art world dinner Biesenbach mentioned to me that he’d crossed paths with Lady Gaga, who said that she felt she was a performance artist — or an artist of some sort.
I asked Biesenbach about the Fassbinder and Anger shows, and he quoted the attendance figures — 100k or so. Much, much more than might turn up to see screenings of Anger films at Anthology, I replied. The Fassbinder comparison is a slightly more complicated one, because it was originally a TV series — and it’s possible that many more than 100,000 saw it in Germany, though certainly not in the USA. The fact that Anger’s work was made to be watched in a cinema setting, and that changing the context to an installation might be in fact changing the work, wasn’t discussed. I have a hunch that Anger might have approved the rubber, clubby setting as a fun, kinky ambience for his films even if most viewers didn’t watch many of them all the way through in this new setting. His films were already about changing context — throwing leather boys and low car culture in front of bohemian experimental film audiences.
Recontextualizing work is a savvy strategy these days. In an extreme view it might appear that some folks simply move the exact same work around to different kinds of venues until it clicks — and the money magically starts to flow. Some see any presumed cleverness or market savvy on behalf of an artist or performer as distasteful. They feel that serious work should be driven primarily by passion or some kind of authenticity and purity, and that financial considerations — figuring out how to monetize one’s work and activity, as it is phrased in dot-com terms — is tacky, and goes against the rules. What rules? Where are these rules written down? Shouldn’t artists be cheered for making money if they can, if they don’t dilute their work?
The “rules” as I intuit them say that cultural production takes place on some moral and ethical high ground where money is not a consideration. According to these rules, for an artist or musician to take financial factors into consideration is to automatically lower and demean work that is supposed to stem from and engage our higher impulses. The work, once money enters the picture, is now assumed to be “work for hire,” to use the legal term. This is why fine artists often look down their noses on craftspeople, illustrators and graphic designers. During the Renaissance, they worked hard to separate themselves from the laborers of the trade guilds, and worked hard to gain acceptance for the idea that they were more than mere craftspeople — so to risk slipping back into that ignoble territory is completely unacceptable.
Speaking of craftspeople and work for hire, I’d argue that some TV ads, which are most definitely “work for hire,” are as innovative and transporting as any art film you can name. The production values are quite a bit higher, so the poor struggling artist can’t afford to compete. But, as if to balance the scales of value in some way, whispering into our ear is a little guy saying, “But it’s an ad!”
Here’s a recent Audi advertisement that features gymnasts as a machine:
…and another that features dark and scary bull riding:
...and here’s a Honda ad with a choir (based, I think, on a Slovenian group) imitating car sounds:
Some ads appropriate — steal might be a better word — ideas from the bohemian art underbelly and redo them with higher production values and tighter editing. The experimental gets absorbed into the mainstream, inevitably. One could cry foul, but to some extent it’s just proof that the idea was good. When I did a feature film, I hired Meredith Monk, Spalding Gray, Jo Harvey Allen and a few others on the performing arts circuit who had inspired me to do what they did, or sort of. Better they themselves get paid and make their own unique contributions than just get copied, uncredited.
According to the old fine art rules, it’s nobler to be poor — which is a cliché for sure, but one that is still held on to dearly. The assumption is that being paid well allies one with the bourgeois one is supposed to be busy offending and shocking. As if anything is shocking today. And making art — if these innovative car ads could be considered art — in service of machines that guzzle fossil fuels is not exactly seen as taking the high road either. Musicians have the same problem — in certain territories one’s peers look askance should one of the old gang get seriously financially rewarded for their work, the hip hop community excepted.
Along with being upset with Tino Sehgal’s clever dealings, some also view Marina Abramović’s recreations of her earlier performances now on view at MoMA as sacrilege — or at the very least, inauthentic. I can see their point — lots of work that has power in a garage, a funky loft, or in a cold and drafty art space loses some of that power when set in a well-lit white museum room.
Then, and now:
The show is a retrospective, so there is a lot of stuff — live people reenact earlier pieces, videos of older pieces run on screens, stills line the walls, and there are also some objects. It’s noisy too, as opposed to what one might imagine these pieces engendered when originally presented — a somewhat respectful silence in the observer. The bustling crowds at MoMA don’t allow for that.
Is it that these pieces weren’t originally created for these museum spaces? Is that what bothers some folks? Are they just nostalgic for the bad old days? Isn’t almost half the stuff in museums — tapestries, frescoes, altar pieces and Greek vases — out of context? Didn’t those objects come from temples, churches and castles? Only contemporary artists really make things for the museum context — giant, oversize paintings and sculptures that wouldn’t fit in any homes I know. The context for many performance pieces might have been more solemn than what I saw — but I have to remind myself that I don’t dismiss all the sacred art displayed in the world’s museums automatically… though I feel a little queasy that much of the power has been drained from it.
Looking at the feats of endurance and bodily mortification on display, I wonder: Are these performances more or less powerful than when Iggy Pop cuts himself or stage dives, or when — to really stretch things — David Blaine lives in a Plexi bubble or is frozen in ice? Are those guys not performance artists too? Are they any less as artists? In some respects aren’t they are doing very similar things? The context is vastly different, again, and something tells me Blaine makes money off his stunts… as did Houdini. So the context seems to be what makes all the difference.
Why, in a museum setting, don't they exhibit all the documentation of early pieces instead — couldn't that make up the show? Because it's sexier, and will sell more tickets, if there are a dozen naked performers on view. And the alternative might just seem a bit too academic and boring.
Another difference, maybe, is that by clearing space around these acts, placing them in a less sensational, muddled, chaotic or media-saturated environment, they are given an aura of solemnity, ritual and spirituality. At one extreme are sideshow freaks and geeks, and at the other is Abramović cutting herself with a razor blade or Tehching Hsieh living in a cage — or even religious ascetics. Iggy and Blaine are somewhere in the middle — though something tells me that Iggy is loved by both artists and sideshow performers.
Here’s a still from the Buñuel film Simon of the Desert, in which a religious ascetic in Spain isolates himself atop a pillar.
I’ve seen Hindu adepts during the Thaipusam festival in Malaysia pierce themselves with steel rods and hooks, and others in Bali attempt to stab themselves with daggers while in trance. The performance of these rituals is open to the public — though it’s not usually advertised as a “show.” SEE the man hang from a hook going through his tendons! SEE the Indian sadhu buried alive! SEE men covered in ash and blood!
Usually it is other faithful who turn out to view and witness — I think that word is key — these acts. And that might be what happens in certain kinds of performance art as well — the art faithful come to bear witness. In many Asian religious festivals there is just as much noise and chaos as at a rock show or at the MoMA, filled with visitors — but the attendants manage to keep their focus despite all the possible distractions.
Here are twin sadhus posing for a photo:
A sadhu is an ascetic who has renounced the world and seeks liberation through contemplation, often via tests of extreme physical endurance. I would argue that performance art like Abramović’s and that of Tehching Hsieh has a similar goal in mind… and like the sadhus, they present themselves and their mortification of the flesh to the public as examples to be witnessed. They don’t hide their asceticism or physical feats from the public — they’re not locked away in temples or monasteries — quite the opposite. According to the photographer’s blog, the sadhus above quickly disrobed and struck a pose when they saw Boiteau’s camera come out.
Likewise aren’t these artists “striking a pose” in museums? Does that make them, or the sadhus above, less authentic?
The Kumbh Mela, a gathering of ascetics, is the world’s largest act of faith… and that’s saying something. In some areas of India it takes place every twelve years, and in others every six years. The pilgrimage in 2001 was — get ready — attended by 70 million people! Not only did that make it a huge show of faith, but it was also the largest gathering of people ever in the whole world! Woodstock? Feh.
Obviously, not all of these people were sadhus — many came to watch. Some watch out of curiosity, and some as believers who observe as the sadhus act, in a way, on their behalf. Does that make it a show? Many of the acts and images here are undeniably and incredibly theatrical — one could argue that the events here are evidence for an innate human tendency for stagecraft and organized, aestheticized spectacle.
A mosh pit, but more artistic, almost staged… and with mostly older men:
The Semana Santa processionals in Sevilla might be looked at the same way — as a form of ritual theater.
So one way to look at performance art is as a form of aesthetic ritual enacted so that the faithful can bear witness — the art faithful, in this case. As we in the West have lost much of our deep faith, we still long for what is missing, and part of that is ritual — ritual that goes beyond the proscribed and formalized behavior of business meetings, PowerPoint lectures, conferences, frat house initiations, toasts and drinking games. Here, rather, are rituals and performances in which the performer, to some extent, loses their identity — either by disguise, nudity, unnaturally formalized behavior, collective activity or muteness — and using slow and methodical movement (implying considered intent), an action manifests and takes place that resonates with us in some hard to define way. The fact that this resonance is elusive is probably part of the reason ritual has so much power. It’s doing something nothing else can do.
If the museum is a kind of church — and I’m not original in saying that — then besides the art that has become the altars and sacred objects on the walls, one needs the presence of real body-based ritual to complete the cycle of need and connection that we all share. Some smells and bells would be nice too.
In the rituals that adhere closest to the above traditions, it is naturally out of place to buy and sell “rights” to the “performance” — to do so in a religious setting would be outrageous, sacrilege. Performance works that come close to these traditions likewise have a heavy aura.
Germano Celant is the curator who arranged Abramović’s piece “Balkan Baroque,” which was performed at the Venice Biennial in 1997. It has been re-created, or rather re-imagined, for the MoMA show. He felt strongly that much had indeed been lost in translation. In the piece she continually cleans a pile of beef bones, and in Venice the bones still had traces of meat and blood on them — and after a while, it got stinky and foul, and reportedly there were even rats.
While cleaning she sings songs from her Serbian childhood, and tells a story of a Wolf Rat that eats it’s own when it is afraid. It couldn’t be more clear. This conjures an image of the artist as a woman who has taken on the dark chthonic role of scrubbing bones as metaphor for memory, guilt, and pain. It is the artist becoming a mythological figure, a stand-in for historical memory; it’s pretty powerful stuff, even without the rats and smells. It’s a fairy tale image straight out of Grimm. Celant claimed that by cleaning things up — the MoMA bones have no flesh hanging off — the power of the piece is diminished.
Hard to argue with him in this case, but in other instances I see the change of context as being inevitable and well, deal with it. Some folks complained, for example, that all the pieces in Abramović’s show were originally performed by her, and that teaching others to do them is just not the same.
A friend says, “What's lost is witnessing the woman who feels she must endure this penance, the more punishing the better; we're witnessing her self-flagellation, knowing that she finds (somewhere) pleasure in it; the audience gets off on her suffering. That can't happen with paid performers.” The art and the artist (the artist or musician’s body) in this case are presumed to be one, inseparable.
No, it’s not ever going to be the same when someone else does it — but sometimes, if we’re lucky, it might even be better. Though, as my friend says, any presumed masochistic motivations and subtext are gone. People get all nostalgic over bands they saw in dank clubs, plays and musicals they saw with the original cast, and operas with specific divas in the lead roles. Yes, sometimes one cast or one set of musicians is better than others, but sometimes the first incarnation isn’t the best either — sometimes a new performer brings fresh life to a role or song. At some point, when a work is truly without resonance, no one will want to see or hear it anyway, regardless of whether the originator is performing or not.
Some of this might have to do with the presumed connection between the author and performer in certain mediums — but that presumed unity is a whole different discussion.
Songs being re-performed by successive singers who didn’t actually write or perform the songs are too easy to bring into this — we’re used to songs being reinterpreted. I prefer Fred Astaire’s version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” over Sinatra’s — though some will go for Bono’s spiritualized version. (There are recorded versions of Cole Porter doing his own songs as well, though I doubt most people would prefer those. So much for the author being the best interpreter.) That a piece — a song, a play, an opera — can be reinterpreted is acceptable. It means we see it again, and from a new angle. New aspects are brought to light or are sometimes obscured, but if it works at all, the song or the role remains alive, which is the point. It’s a kind of continual resurrection, in which the new being is never the same as the old one.
One could, following a connection between performance art with other performing arts, also view performance art for what it is — a performance, a special kind of show, and a subset or genre of theater. Just as I perform in front of people for money (or not), I sometimes feel that why shouldn’t others be subjected to some of the same forces as I am? — ticket sales, audience attention span, word of mouth and patience. Why not? Maybe, instead of selling the rights to a piece to the Guggenheim, Sehgal and the museum might have considered splitting the income from admissions. Maybe any performance artist, videomaker or artist whose work has no physical manifestation might do the same thing. When there is nothing physical to sell, you can always sell tickets. (Maybe they should even have merch tables like we musicians do to supplement their income and provide keepsakes?) Fundamentally we musical and stage performers don’t have anything to sell either — we are selling an experience that takes place at that moment. That moment and no other. It happens and then it’s gone. If you pay to be there, you experience it — and a live record, still photo or video is a poor substitute, a mere souvenir. A totem, a relic. A phone video? Forget it — it’s not the same.
The downside of that idea — treating performance art as if it is like any other performance — is that inevitably less popular work would eventually get pushed aside because not as many people would buy tickets. (But haven’t less popular musicians, and theater and dance groups, managed somewhat to survive? Yes, but barely — most still make very little money.) Not just less popular work, but work that doesn’t require a long time commitment to experience might also not fare so well. One might want to gaze for a while, in curiosity and weird rapture, at someone uncomfortably suspended on a wall or counting to a million, or at someone living daily life in a window or a cage, but how long can you view these things? How much would you pay for a glimpse? Many are not very theatrically engaging, so would you actually pay to see them? There’s no entertainment value either. These artists begin, as stated, in galleries, if they’re lucky — where admission is free — so only when they achieve enough success to be given a museum show can this admission idea come into play… but by then, they’re broke.
Part of the high art idea is that important work should NOT have to be popular; value, in that world, should not be subservient to market forces. It should not be expected to be simply or mainly entertaining. It’s got a higher agenda. I would say, yes, lofty and serious work should be allowed to exist free of Walmart or Wall Street. However, one could argue that they are simply ruled by another, alternative and more rarefied market with a set of forces of its own — a market that has other criteria and rules of play. Some of these criteria are, as advertised, heartfelt, intellectual, innovative and creative, while others are neither better nor worse than the values of the common market forces — just different, as are those of other unique subcultures: trainspotters, stamp collectors and comic book geeks. Each of these values things according to criteria that they alone understand. There are market forces at work, but only within a proscribed world.
Anyway, I say more power to the artists who can place what they do, without adulterating it, into a context that will possibly provide them a living and ideally expose the work to a larger audience. Even those videos of short dance pieces might be reaching a larger audience than they might otherwise (though I still have issues with whether folks are really watching them). One doesn’t necessarily always do better work with more freedom or money. Sometimes to write you just need a pencil and paper, and you can create a whole universe.
Among musicians there is the aphorism, “The musician who doesn’t pay attention to their business soon doesn’t have any business” — which is a response to the snobbish and romantic attitude that to be pure and authentic one mustn’t be concerned with money.
There’s certainly a difference between simply being on top of your business and letting the business guide and influence your creative instincts. That’s a valid distinction, but the border is often fuzzy. If something is placed in a new context and becomes successful, was it necessarily because the creator cynically tailored the work exclusively to a business plan? Not always. But yes, sometimes.
So, what do I think? I would argue that nothing exists in isolation. Not an original idea, I guess, but we still tend to view things as discrete — songs, performances, artwork — though they’re not. Maybe the stuff around an object, film or performance is as important as what we’re looking at or listening to. Maybe context is the work. In which case we might be back to “all we have is our opinion.” Sheesh.
Biked up the west side to Terminal 5, a venue that has put on a lot of shows recently, but that I hadn’t been to since its days as a kind of sleazy disco, when I saw Fischerspooner some years ago. The physical aspect of the place hasn’t changed much — it still feels like a massive, cold, corporate club — but tonight’s show was a parcel of acts on the innovative Warp label, with Battles headlining, so it promised something new.
I liked much of their first record, and the video of the band playing in a mirrored room is incredible, so I was curious. I heard they’d be playing new stuff, so I wondered where they would take whatever it is that they do.
It was pretty amazing — fairly constant driving beats over which guitars, keyboards and loops, fed through all kinds of effects, were layered. The vocals, if you can call them that, were also looped and treated so that they emerged as incomprehensible textures, articulating vaguely melodic riffs. All this leapt from one section to another in ways that made it hard to discern the underlying form or structure of each piece — though the sounds were generally and consistently engaging and involving. They could have been making it all up on the go, but I sensed there was a lot — a LOT — of pre-planning that went into the set. (This was confirmed by some friends who know them and said, yeah, they practice all the time and it’s all very worked out.)
Their poor drummer sometimes looked shagged out, his shirt soaked as he slumped over his kit catching his breath during the few moments when he wasn’t playing — though he never tired or flagged. When the time came he started up again, like a machine recharged. Some of the loops and abrupt changes were hilarious — I laughed out loud — as they sounded like they wouldn’t work, like they were all wrong, but then somehow the insane part would find a context and surprisingly plop into place and it all seemed right. There were pedals all over the stage; even the drumming was going through pedals and loops. The guitarists had their instruments slung way up high, and I realized that was because they were constantly leaning over to hit pedals on a table or tweak the software on their laptops, and if the guitars had longer straps they would have been swinging around smashing all the gear to pieces. It made for a semi-geeky look, but they’re obviously geeks with a mission and purpose, no nonsense.
The “songs” had plenty of dynamic structure within them — ups and downs, and quiet bits and explosive bits — but there were no crescendos and the set as a whole had no typical dynamic build, unless we were all supposed to recognize the last two songs, which from an audience point of view would have signaled “here’s the single.” The dynamics within each “song” were also fairly abrupt — the changes from one section to the next were sudden, like edits. The band is often grouped under the “math rock” genre — which I guess refers to the “cold,” abrupt lack of transitions and inscrutable structure. Parts started, went on for bit, and then ended, just as suddenly as they had begun. No easing into sections, no chorus and verse, no emotional builds and transitions — those seemed to be verboten. There’s a dogma at work here — rules that guide, restrict and limit the music — but I’m only guessing regarding some of the clauses in this invisible manifesto. It was pretty amazing, but not for everyone.
I got an Amazon Kindle DX (the large-size one) before leaving on this last 6-week European tour leg. I thought that I could afford to be a guinea pig (it’s almost $500!) and try this way of reading. I loaded up a bunch of books ($10 for most, many just out) and some New Yorker magazines before I left, and as a result saved some space in my luggage, which usually gets filled with books I brought or purchased on the road. My luggage, as you can imagine, still got pretty full — mainly CDs and DVDs I was given — but a pile of books and magazines would have put it over the top. You can therefore “carry” more books than you might read, and if one is boring you can easily just dip into another.
Here’s my report.
The screen contrast approximates reading a newspaper — the background is off-white, rather than the ivory or white of most books. So it’s not super contrasty, but for me it’s OK — I didn’t feel eye strain. The device is heavier than a small paperback, but lighter than a hardback, so that part was no problem — and it’s MUCH thinner than any physical book, so it slips in a bag easily. The B&W screen isn’t so good with photos, though they’re often no worse than a B&W newspaper image. But, since most of what I was reading wasn’t photo- or chart-heavy, that was OK too. Reading The New Yorker, for example, was pretty great — no ads, you can skip around to various sections of the magazine, and the new issues download via a cellular network automatically.
There are a few websites that offer thousands of public domain books — Jane Austen, Dickens, Melville, Joyce and lots of wacky, forgotten, orphaned volumes as well. I got one by PT Barnum. So, if you wanted, you could have hundreds of books in this thing and not pay for any of them.
One of Amazon’s selling points is instant gratification. You want a book (at least in the US — there’s no coverage in Europe or elsewhere) and you can have it in about a minute — if there’s a Kindle version — and… you can shop only at Amazon (or through certain other Kindle content providers).
Here’s where the rub is. This machine only reads Kindle files and PDFs. And nothing else out there reads Kindle files. It can read other types of files — Word DOCs, MOBI, TXT etc. — but you have to go through Amazon via email, where they’re converted for a small charge, then sent directly to your Kindle. And, you can’t share a book with your friends, even if they too have a Kindle. No doubt, as with MP3 and iTunes, book publishers would only agree to this system if people couldn’t share their purchases. As we know, Apple has relented on this, and has taken DRM off many of their music files. But which ones? How do you know? Years from now, having gone through a few computers, your music collection is unplayable except for the files without DRM. Well, same with these books — if you migrate to a different tablet (the forthcoming Apple one we hear so much about, for example), you are fucked. All the unread books in your Kindle library are stuck on what will eventually become antiquated technology.
There are other e-book formats out there (EPub is being touted as a cross-platform format, but still, ugh, with DRM). I saw a guy at a bar reading a Kindle book on his iPhone, as the files are available for those and for the iPod Touch through an Amazon app, but it looked kinda tiny, and the backlit screen will drain a battery in a couple of hours of constant use. The slightly strange electronic ink system in the Kindle (and in the Sony Reader) has no backlight — so, like a book, you can’t read it in bed at night without a nightlight. This was an understandable tradeoff, as the battery life is unbelievable. With the wi-fi switched off (you only need it running to retrieve orders or magazine subscriptions), the thing stays charged for weeks.
Do I miss the “physical experience”? I will certainly miss being able to read books from my personal library, but if the title I want to read is all text it doesn’t make much difference to me. The smell will be a bit of nostalgia, as will fading and water damage. The Kindle only uses about two fonts at present, so some may miss type layout and design. But I suspect additional fonts will be added soon. On the e-book file I can still highlight sections to refer to later, and there’s a built-in dictionary! I forgot that! You put the cursor next to a word, and a little definition appears at the bottom of the page! Students will love that. I do.
I hear that the Apple tablet will use a format that is more cross-platform, but will that mean I can share a book with my friend? It’s surely a way we make friends sometimes: “I just finished this GREAT book, do you want to read it? I’ll pass you my copy.” As with music, sharing things is a way of getting to know one another and a form of reciprocal debt — if I “lend” you my book, you sort of owe me… a book, or something. We’re linked now, which is how we use these things that represent our inner selves — as social connectors. Take that ability away, the ability to exchange stuff that represents us, and I’ll bet some of the “value” of these kinds of e-books goes too… the social interconnectedness value, not the dollar value.
The Apple tablet looks to have illumination, which will drain battery life really quickly in book-reading time (many, many hours on a train, plane, bus, back porch, bed) — but sometimes the color, photo quality and ability to read in low light that Apple promises (and the touch screen!) might win out. We’ll see. I do think, based on my limited experience, that if some of these bugs and proprietary issues can be worked out in any of these reader things, then yes, the future of reading (and of selling books) will be very different, whether it’s this device or another one.
The bookselling and publishing worlds will be shaken with repercussions. Imagine the hundreds of pounds of textbooks a lot of college students are expected to lug around every year — and pay hundreds of dollars for as well. And the resulting medical bills. If those textbooks can be sold as weightless $10 downloads the students and their parents will cheer, and the chiropractors will cry. A LOT of publishers count textbook sales as their bread and butter, because the poor students HAVE to buy them — which is why they are so damn overpriced. If the income from those textbooks shrinks by 90%, they’ll be hurtin’.
Likewise, if, as Amazon hopes, all books will be priced around $10, then publishers who regularly charge $25 for a new hardback (cheaper than a textbook) will also be crying. Or going out of business unless they jump on the wagon.
The upside for publishers is that with digital files there is a much lower distribution cost. There is still the expense of setting up and maintaining the e-commerce situation — which is not nothing, but it is mainly front-loaded. The ever-recurring printing costs, trucks, warehouses or even, ulp, percentages to bookstores go away. (“Hello, Tower Records, meet Barnes and Noble.”) So the printing and distribution costs will be significantly less — though there are still the costs and skills involved in marketing. As things move in that direction, it seems obvious that writers will begin to realize that the percentages and royalties they normally give up for those services — well, why should they pay them? Kinda like the music biz.
Another parallel to the music biz is that writers will be able to self-publish and distribute. Who knows what they’ll live on, but there won’t be any printing costs or distribution percentages to subtract from book sales. Just like the musicians (like me) who sell downloads from their own websites, writers will sometimes bypass publishers. Would Tom Clancy or Steven King need their publishers to print and distribute their latest? Hardly. Their fans, like Radiohead’s or those of NIN, will just buy directly from the author’s website. Amazon has already launched a test platform called Digital Text, which enables anyone to upload their work, suggest a retail price, and pocket 35% of sales.
Lastly, and scariest for publishers I guess, is that inevitably someone will hack the Kindle (or other formats) — and the books will become shareable… and copiable and infinitely reproducible, just like MP3s. People laughed at the record companies, with their reputations as money squanderers and for their waste and extravagance — but music hasn’t suffered, and writing and magazines might not either, especially if both writers and publishers can learn from the record companies and not pretend that publishing is any different.