Thursday, October 25, 2007

Paul Chan's video films might be an excellent example of vulnerablist political art.

Three of them were shown at the Madison MCA this evening, and I'll write about two:

RE: THE_OPERATION (2002), a half-hour series of invented letters and emails from the Bush cabinet as they fight the "war on terror" on the ground in the Middle East, seems like a setup that could only result in sarcastic caricature (which could be perfectly good satire--"what if they really did have to serve in the armed forces"). Instead, the text Chan gives these politicos includes a more or less ordinary letter from George to Laura, a musing by Condi on masculine equations of war and sex, an anonymously delivered, predatory sexual message by Ashcroft, a press release regularly disrupted by static, a text by Blanchot on friendship. Some of it's funny, most is variously strange--and even the moments of "character assassination" lack any "nyah-nyah." I find the tone (or various tones) admirable and moving, as well as profoundly disorienting.

It's Baghdad In No Particular Order (2003) that particularly inclines me to give Chan the Vulnerablist's Stamp of Approval. A fifty-minute sequence of pieces of footage from Chan's 2002 trip to Baghdad with Voices in the Wilderness, this is "artless" art in the best sense; Chan's technique with the hand-held camera is, by his own admission, "not that good," and the cinematography has the look of any video shot by a highly thoughtful, sensitive and observant tourist--because it more or less is that, rather than an imitation of that style by someone trying to make their work look "authentic."

The juxtaposition of scenes is paratactical, as the title implies, though the composition is clearly thought-out. The voice-over (spoken not by Chan himself, but by a woman whose name I didn't manage to write down) is infrequent, usually just telling us the name of a person or type of music we're seeing. When the voice does wax philosophical, it does so without any need to produce an intellectual "ah-ha!" At one point, the voice says something like, "They only trust me enough to stare when I am blind... blindness is the prerequisite for clairvoyance--" a direct reflection on the situation of filming (in this case, a pair of fascinated, silent children toward whom Chen has turned the viewer screen on which they're displayed) and a less direct one on the intention to show the film to others. Both in the film and on his website, Chen is refreshingly unapologetic in his love of philosophy, it's always both interesting and relevant (in one Godardian moment Chan puts a quote from Adorno's Aesthetic Theory into the mouth of a girl showing a drawing to the camera, and it works wonderfully). His program note frames BINPO as a Benjaminian project, which it manages to be, with less pretense than any other self-described Walterwerks I've encountered (Benjamin might be the philosopher who comes closest to Vulnerablism).

I don't think I've described the film very well. Perhaps a single moment will illustrate it better:

Throughout, the camera wobbles and swerves, and there are many close-ups that are too extreme for the lens to focus; subjects blur in and out. Toward the end of the film, the camera lingers, in a dim room, on a series of (I'm pretty sure) black-and-white snapshots of people who have died, the shot so close that, in general, they appear as face-shaped blobs with dark holes for eyes--almost skulls. This closeness, however, also means that any tiny movement of the camera has a huge effect, and so part of a face will become clear as the lens is tilted just a bit, or the entire photo becomes visible for a second. On occasion, this movement results in the haunting illusion of the eyes blinking--the shifting of focus in different directions on multiple areas of the picture is disorienting enough that the photo seems to have come to life.

Both of the latter two films, and this one in particular, meet the major Vulnerablist criteria (loose and tentative as they are): rough edges (not as a pose, but also treated as compositional material), room for humor and mournfulness as well as Brechtian alienation, directness and philosophical complexity, parataxis and naturalism, the inclusion of the composing subject without the protection either of accusing or excepting itself, careful reflexivity and a moment-by-moment openness to what happens.

No conclusion.

The "footnotes" (aka "Part II" of the film, an archive of texts, sound, paintings, and clips from the film) are online.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

This weekend in Chicago, the Nonsense Company performs as part of Opera Cabal's Delusions festival.


Monday, October 08, 2007

30 Years of Lou and Peter Berryman

Last night Lou and Peter Berryman performed on the UW campus, celebrating 30 years of some of the most singular, mind-blowing songwriting in human history, as well as the release of their new record, The Universe: 14 Examples, and 30 years of folk music on Wisconsin Public Radio. The concert bounced back and forth between their earliest songs and their most recent, and between the think muscles, cry glands, and laugh cortex, binding them in synaesthesiac rapture.
How can I express how innovative, brilliantly constructed, and rewarding these songs are? I can't--not without at least the audible presence of the performers themselves, their odd, friendly, lovable personalities and vastly different, unique voices (a difference that imbues their polyphonic vocal interweavings with clarity). And not without Lou's meticulous music: melodies that can seem simple and straightforward until you try to sing them and begin to uncover their chromatic intricacy, their surprising twists and turns, the meaningful variation in degree of distance between pitches, the morphing, inversion and reversal of intervals that effectively answers the old question, "what if Schoenberg had written tonal folk music in the United States?"

But (to ask another of the old questions) is it folk? I can't answer that question without being able to play you the arrangements of Lou and Peter's songs. One recurrent problem in music (and perhaps especially in the nostalgic world of "folk as a genre") is the obsession with authenticity; if a songwriter is going to record a march or a tango, he or she generally does everything possible to give the song a "march sound" or "tango sound," bringing in extra musicians on the proper instruments for those genres, producing the record so that it sounds as much as possible like the most familiar marches or tangos. So the songwriter has simply added another set of lyrics to the same music we've heard before. The Berrymans are among the minority who know that the way to produce something new, an unheard-of folk music, is instead to bend the tools already at hand, to write for the accordion and guitar in forms they were never meant to inhabit. It makes every note count, makes it necessary to come up with fresh musical ideas, employs a genre as a skeleton or mask rather than a fashionable shirt ("playing a tango makes me look so good"). Part of the secret is in the instrumental melodies; Peter's 12-string rarely plays a full chord, instead interlocking with Lou's accordion to weave the fabric in the which the threads all stand out in their varied colors.

I can't express any of this, or even the wonderful consciousness that "funny" and "serious" are in no way opposites, that laughter and care go together and that this complexity is simple and direct because we live it (that it's only regarding art that there's a rigorous division made--another consequence of genre and of thinking of art as saying something about it's consumer, rather than to the people it encounters)--see, I can't express it without the songs. My sentences run off into obscurity. All I can venture here is a typology, a list of a few kinds of songs with reference to Peter's lyrics, and even that is misleading, since almost every song Peter writes is its own genre (actually, I've found that he writes in twos--there are a lot of songs that seem like pairs, often 15 or 20 years apart--but I can hardly think of any songwriter whose songs are that distinct from one another in their form and content).

1) The "pure language" song, like "The Similes," the first verse of which tells us that the Similes are flying by again in the sky, and the rest of which progresses symmetrically from single-word comparisons ("like flies/like hay") to elaborate compound images "like a bump on a log despite a notable night beside the beckoning beach without a suitable suit until the furniture guy arrives and everyone eats a pizza by the door beside the shore" and back to single words, the whole form imitating the expansion and contraction of a flock of birds, coming down to end on the unaccompanied "like ducks" (bird songs are a genre in their own right, and many make birds the icons of thoughts and words. For one that doesn't, see "Some Birds"). Or "The History of Language," in which a story of a seaside picnic ends with the arrival of a century-old woman who sits down and begins to tell her tale--which turns out to be the same tale we've just heard, but in versions of English that move farther and farther into the past as the song progresses. See also "Odd Man Out."

2) Close to this is the song that uses "pure" linguistic constraints to refer to the extra-linguistic, as in "Bird Bird Bird." See also, in another sense, "Artiste Interrupted."

(those clicking on the links will notice that my categories are already blurred)

3) The "conversation song." See "Talkin' at the Same Time" (verses 2&3, 5&6, 8&9 are simultaneous), "I Don't Believe You Like My Shirt," "Orange Cocoa Cake," countless others.

4) The Wisconsin song. See "The Limburger Ballad," "Forward Hey."

5) The political satire. See "Acme Forgetting Service," "Elderlyville."

6) There's a category I don't have a succinct name for: the song that deals with daily life, the normal stuff, seen as weird. There's often an appreciation for simple existence in these songs that I find incredibly moving--and it's a theme that I usually can't stand in other people's work; it often seems to promote a love of comfort that blocks out everything else, shuts down the mind, a position of (in folk music) middle-class liberal privilege. Peter's lyrics in this vein, on the other hand, show a mind as active and unpredictable as any, and implicitly argue for a life kept strange, and thus outside various statuses quo, always on its toes. I think this category and #1 might be my favorites. See "We Don't Do It," "When Did We Have Sauerkraut?," "Red Kimono."

This post is way too long. All I wanted to do was express my thanks to Peter and Lou for their work. I can't think of many examples of people who've created a genuinely new art form by making their chosen field so capacious, opening it up to such a wide range of experience. That sounds like a good definition of the achievement of full humanity, and I hold it dear. Here's to another 30 years!


Friday, October 05, 2007

Some quotations from Robin Blaser's 1973 essay 'The Stadium of the Mirror' (in The Fire, UC Press 2006):

The Other is not an object, but acts chiasmatically (Merleau-Ponty's word). Not a stillness. Not a rest. Always the opposite and companion of any man's sudden form. This is the unrest given to thought. And to our invisibility. Perhaps this is also the life of Beauty whose companion is a terror or coldness. (28)

Under the arrangement of words (hypotaxis), the hierarchies come to a stasis. A standing still. [...] Ek--out of stasis. Ecstasy. [...] Through the arrangement of words (parataxis), there is a speech alongside my speech, which allows a double-speech. A placement. The Other is present and primary to our speaking. There is no public realm without such polarity of language. The operation of its duplicity is the poetic job. (32)

An actual directive of all serial poems is that the series is other than, not simply more than, its parts [...] the serial poem constantly circumscribes an absence that brings its presences to life. (33-34)

The ontological necessity of what we are speaking is our invisibility, the companion of our visibility. One may offer another only a world, not oneself. (34)

Stops. The thought of totals, the original totalitarianism, is a rooted dissimulation and turns the present into the past or into the already thought. (34)

All true language is thought and so reverses into experience. (36)