Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Early 90s fairly popular, fairly poltical British music

There was a strange little Interzone of Politicised Baggy/Crusty/Hip-Hop in the early 90s, quite mixed in race and gender terms. None of these bands was critically well received, all of them were fairly to very popular i.e. Chart action/TV spots! An admission; I didn't and don't like any of them. There may well be more obvious contenders I can't remember, obviously there's The Levellers (aha! that's where Folk went in the 90s, innit!) but they don't have a dance dimension. Britpop pretty comprehensively swept all this stuff away. I'm also going to skip RDF/Citizen Fish/Culture Shock for now as they were too "underground".

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Other Brothers Can't Deny

In the spirit of Phil's project of an alternative pop canon, IMHO the above could be the greatest hit single of the 90s. For starters, I defy anyone to name a better U.S. no. 1 from that decade. If you want to get all 'cultural theory' about it, there's myriad social conflicts, historical vibrations, defiant affirmations and contradictory anxieties at play in this ditty; but I can't be arsed elaborating all that much. Let's just say it forms part of a continuum stretching back to vaudeville and the 'jelly rolls' of Delta Blues, recklessly throws itself into the thick of the culture wars, perversely reclaims American capitalism's traumatic origins (whip-crack), and even has a blink-and-you-miss-it flashback to the Vietnam War. It manages to throw in all these allusions while (literally) grounding the listener with its celebratory theme. In four throwaway minutes, it manages what Oliver Stone couldn't pull off with a hundred million dollars, a six-month shoot and a crew of thousands.

But for now, I'll conclude with a Zen defence: What makes it so very wrong may be the very thing that makes it perfect. Surely the a posteriroi justification for all the best 'low-brow' art, no?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Olympian Spirit

Lovely bit of Spenglerian iconography in this advert for British Telecom's new broadband service, BT Infinity (!). Here we can see The Singularity raining its holy manna-jism over man-machine cyber-athletes, clad in the increasingly ubiquitous Union Jack. This is patriotism not in the blood, but worn as a second skin purely for abstract, ritualised competition, and easily shed to reveal the globalised, pan-national corporate leviathan beneath.

The accompanying soundtrack is by Coldplay, whose hesitant, tentative, optimist-pessimist, wave-that-never-crests sound ever suggests a goal that is in sight but that can never quite be reached. Philosophically, Coldplay have always seemed to suggest the impossibility of communication, and perhaps our culture's last idea will be to accommodate the impossibility of reaching infinity as a kind of achieving infinity by default - that the gap becomes the prime symbol of our civilisation rather than the goal itself.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

That Good, Old-Time Religion

This is an absolutely fascinating interview with Peter Mandelson, on the subject of the Euro and the future of the EU. It's chiefly fascinating because it shows how unhinged the "moderate" common-sensical mainstream of British and European politics is, and how resistant they are to the mandates of reality.

Very few people understand what the European Union really is, which is not a trading bloc, or a standardising bureaucracy, or a political attempt to nullify Germany, although it became these things accidentally. What the EU actually is is a Revitalisation Movement, by which a morally and culturally decrepit civilisation, physically shattered by the rampages of the quasi-barbarian ancestor cult known as Nazism (itself a bizarre attempt at renewal), tried to reinvigorate itself by the creation of a mission-myth of a New Europe, born again to dazzle the world with its enlightened, endlessly evolving cultural dynamism. It's this essentially religious vision that explains the keep-voting-until-you-give-us-the-right-result fanaticism of the Europhiles; why the likes of Peter (actually a typical member of the British political class with regards to Europe) still believe.

But behind the facade of social democracy with which the EU pretended to distance itself from the "Anglo-Saxon" model of neoliberalism, it was up to the same late-Faustian game of agnotological voodoo-finance - the only way that the West can continue its progress-mythology: by inventing the (no longer plentiful) resources that enable the "progress" that is its very world-soul.

The Euro is dead. The EU is dead. But, like the banks, expect them to continue to stagger on in the standard zombie half-life that characterises the decline of the final institutions of The West.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Noughties Poem Including History

Before we came to this country,
We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys,
There were empires in Africa called Kush,
Timbuktu, where every race came to get books
To learn from black teachers who taught Greeks and Romans,
Asians, Arabs, and gave them gold.
When gold was converted to money it all changed,
Money then became empowerment for Europeans;
The Persian military invaded,
They heard about the gold, the teachings, and everything sacred;
Africa was almost robbed naked,
Slavery was money, so they began making slave ships;
Egypt was the place that Alexander the Great went,
(He was so shocked at the mountains with black faces)
Shot up they nose to impose what basically
Still goes on today, you see?

If the truth is told, the youth can grow,
Then learn to survive until they gain control.
Nobody says you have to be gangstas, hoes.
Read more, learn more, change the globe.
Ghetto children, do your thing,
Hold your head up, little man, you're a king.
Young Princess when you get your wedding ring,
Your man is saying "She's my queen".

- Nas, "I Can" (2002)

Monday, 7 November 2011

Recovering from the opportunities of 1980s or, "There is playdough in the chill-out room,"

Operator: Here we are, I have this connected for you now, it should run fine at least for the next few days.

[undoes cap and wipes finger around run and re-covers, smiling to no one in particular, a little C shaped gesture of the head]

Recovery is usually straight forward, there might be a few odd sensations here and there but don't worry. The medication you're on now will dull any pain, but more importantly it will subdue that feeling your getting.


Yes, the pins and needles. I spoke to a lad the other day described it as being like his nerves trying to make a fist or a shadow-puppet or something. Obviously that's  not what is really happening, and the sensation is all wrong because the signals can't be coming from where you think they are. Obviously.

[Wipes upper lip and sits down carefully, as if this action, of all the others that will be performed today is the one that will be observed, marked]

[Takes a small breath and allows features in face to wind up in a familiar way that comes before beginning the routine, speaking the words that have worn their way through time and observance. Familiarity is not comforting, not in this case, but it drives time and responsibililty as if on a belt and that does make things easier, one it's started it's as predictable as the morning news.]

[Does not say anything]

[There is a restaurant nearby, it is nearly full, only a few tables in awkward places between walls and fixtures, next to the toilets and beneath a speaker are empty, or at least occupied only by inanimate objects, possessions, shopping.]

Narrator: so where is it, where are they coming from?

Operator: Somewhere else, that's all the matters, some Other place. That's what is most important, they come from outside. It's a binary thing.

Narrator: But surely there is a gradient?

Operator: Not in this situation, not in most in my experience, the cut makes it pretty clear.

[A young couple are standing in the doorway of the restaurant, not yet committing to entering as if they can hang onto the moment before that decision is made, before the social armature swinging like a boom comes round. They stand in that dead space at the top of the arc, assessing whether it will work to enter this place to eat, whether it will be awkward, perhaps sharing a table, at least having to excuse themselves as they step past people already in mid flow of conversation, and food, protecting themselves further with protective laughter, fork gestures, protecting against an elbow in the back or a scarf knocked from the back of a chair. To enter into all of this is so much. The wind tips, the boom swings over and they enter, uncertain as to whether this decision is their own but by then it hardly matters, reflexes kick in and they are enveloped]

Operator: You're going to have to learn to let it go.

Narrator: let it go?

Operator: Yes.

[wipes lip again]

There's something that was there, but now it's elsewhere, it's in the Other space.

Narrator: That's ridiculous, it's in a space here, it's in a bin at the back probably, in a yellow bag and on a trolley,waiting to be moved again.

[Begining to obviously sweat, looking damp]

It's more active than me, and that's the problem, it's still part of me, the gap means nothing. I'm full of gaps, you're full of gaps! The thing that's me is monster.

Operator: ...

[shifts weight as if to get up, then repeats action in reverse, brings it back. Like a man in a bar racking the pool balls, that little flourish, getting more pronounced as the evening moves on, the more pitchers, the more won games, the more hopefully threatening stacks of 50p's on the edge of the table]

Now, look self image is a delicate thing, but you can't dwell on it, you need to understand...

Narrator: I do understand, you don't understand at all. I have gaps all through me same as you, that object out back, making its way in the world, that's still part of me, just like my primary school education is part of me, the way I learnt to form letters on those exercise books with the extra horizontal lines.

[Tries to stand but can't, sits down, sits up. rubs hands together, looks down at the beads of sweat on the backs of each hand. Watches one  droplet of water run off one way, and then another a different way. Blinks.]

There's just a blur that gets thicker in places, has some dense points, collision points, tight enough that I can sit on a chair with them but it's still all a blur, there's no line that says this is one thing and that's another.

Operator: But there is a line...

Narrator: No, no there isn't! We put the line done afterwards, and then forget that we did so, or at least try and forget. This is why we have courts for example, they spend day after day doing this activity that ends with a line being dropped on the ground and everyone trying hard to forget they just put it there. Day after day telling some poor soul that he transgressed while he looks at his feet and lies through his teeth that he knowingly did it as if there was a sign there.

Nothing categorically ends, well it does, but that category is what we put down. You know what though? that categories have been getting blurrier and blurrier themselves, mixing in with all those things they were meant to keep apart, like you've microwaved your ready made korma too hard and for too long and it just got up off that ceramic rotating plate and ate your face!

Operator: But division is what makes things work, you can't have a machine made out of jelly, the gears have to be distinct from one another, otherwise the energy wouldn't get anywhere.

Narrator: Rubbish! I love jelly, and the energy runs more efficienty through that than it does though the drive on a lathe, all that energy lost in a slipped belt, in the wearing of bushes, and the whole thing is making it self redundant all the time anyway, bringing on it's own obsolescence while continually looking the other way, pretending it can last for ever and it will harness all these kinetic and cultural forces in it's steel for all time. The jelly is far more efficient and it embraces it's own demise with no pretence, with dignity.

Operator: This is a very stressful time, you can't expect to adjust straight away, that's what we're here for, to put these systems in place to ease the transition to your new life. It's not even you new life, it's just your life.

[Wipes hands on down sides of trousers from hips to just above ankles, bending forward with head still looking straight ahead at all times, settling back. Leans forward to fall back on the old phrase]

Everything's going to be fine!

Narrator: I know it will be fine, I know it will be seamless, it's the seams which are false! It's the myth of the seams that are making this so stressful, they make you think you should know where you are but you don't. I mean, one doesn't, not "you" personally. The map isn't bloody there when you look down! I'm going to learn to accept it if it's the last thing I do! I'm going to learn to be overjoyed when people put their fingers in my food and leave them there, I'm going to spread myself out all over the place and just ooze and throb, it's going to be wonderful, I'm Whitney, I'm Chaka Khan, I'm every woman! I'm ready for the dream time, melt me!

How to Be a Retronaut

When Forrest Gump was first released, what focussed the attention of the public wasn’t its appalling caricature of the counterculture of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, nor its reactionary hollowing out of history. It was the digital effects. This may seem quaint now, especially if one considers that so much ground had already been broken – and in more spectacular fashion – by the likes of Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. But maybe it was just that fact: that Gump’s digital effects weren’t overtly spectacular, nor used to depict the extraordinary, but fit in rather within a more classic kind of storytelling in the tradition of great American cinema. Think It’s a Wonderful Life with the benefit of modern post-production: so not a radically changed film, but one that made full use of the available technology of our time – as Frank Capra did in his – in order to achieve maximum photographic realism.

A lot was made in the marketing of the picture about the feather carried by the wind in the opening and closing sequences: a feather that was tracked with uncanny precision and grace by Robert Zemeckis’ aerial shot, except of course it didn’t magically land at Forrest’s feet simply because it wasn’t there when the camera was rolling: it was inserted later by Ken Ralston’s team of digital artists. Somehow, that filmmakers could conjure that feather into existence seemed just as momentous as the coming to life on the screen of Spielberg’s T-Rex the year before. It was a new kind of magic.

That this magic in Forrest Gump served also the very peculiar and far from innocent purpose of rewriting post-War American history from a disconsolately conservative perspective later became the subject of extensive critical attention. However this concerns me today only in passing. I want to show how some of the sequences implicated in this manipulation of the shared historical record were also precursors to a seemingly less politically charged but also far more prevalent relationship with our mediated past. It’s a relationship that has virtually come to define internet culture, and culture more generally.

Tom Hanks next to JFK. But also, Tom Hanks next to John Lennon. Tom Hanks next to Richard Nixon. Tom Hanks who picks up the notebook dropped by a black student at the newly desegregated University of Alabama. And so forth. It is in these scenes that Gump’s use of digital effects is at its most self-conscious, inviting the spectator to marvel at the technology that allows the film to literally write its lead character into the country’s history. This leads to an ontological paradox whereby the seamlessness of the insertion from the point of view of its photographic realism should be – but isn’t – negated by the fact that spectator is fully aware of the deception. Or, to put it another way: we admire how real those images look precisely because we know that they have been forged, and the manner in which they have been forged.

Photographic manipulation of course is as old as the medium, but I think there is merit in the argument that with digital technologies there has been a step change, and we have entered a post-photographic era in which the existence of the objective referent that used to be a defining feature of the medium (for instance according to Barthes) can no longer be assumed under practically any circumstance. Gump’s historical mashups have been used to illustrate just this point. However an aspect that is less often remarked upon is how silly and full of bathos these sequences are. Forrest tells JFK that he needs to pee, bares his buttocks in front of Lyndon Johnson, discusses hotel arrangements with Nixon (he’s staying at the Watergate, of course), inspires Lennon to come up with the lyrics of 'Imagine'. In every instance, while it is ostensibly Hanks’ character that provides the comedy, who gets ridiculed are his historical counterparts, and what gets trivialised – for the sake of jokes that are every bit as laboured and unfunny as the technical execution of the sequences is sophisticated – is capital-aitch History.

If there is satirical intent in any of this, it’s hard to see the point of it. It seems to me rather that the object of these sequences is the very act of toying with the past, the demonstration that we can do it, we can alter the record at will. As I say, once the initial wave of critical acclaim for the film subsided, the focus shifted onto its rewriting of four decades of American political and social history. While most of this work is done in more complex and extended sequences, and often quite literally written on the body of the character played by Robin Wright, the manipulation of the archival footage speaks to a disenchanted attitude towards the past that is just as central to its making meaning. 'There is nothing sacred about history' is one of Gump’s core messages, and while it wasn’t a novel one at the time, the newly available digital compositing tools allowed the filmmakers to make it with unprecedented forcefulness.

The author, ca. 1908
Nearly two decades later, that kind of manipulation has become not just routine – it’s everywhere. Every other photo that is put up on Facebook or Flickr has some sort of retro-filter a-la Hipstamatic applied to it. There is no era in poster-art that won’t get cleverly reinvented as alternative past or present. There is no worldwide current event that won’t make Hitler angry, or that cannot be represented as a series of status updates on Facebook. Endless film prequels, the current vogue for period television drama, vintage tastes in fashion and the retromania in pop music described by Simon Reynolds are all manifestations of the folding of the past into the present that defines late postmodernity through the mediation of digital technology. 

A digital artefact has no physical characteristics, therefore cannot be dated independently of its claims as to the time when it was created or posted. What follows – along the lines of what Paolo Cherchi-Usai has written about the moving image, and of one of the main corollaries of the contention that we live in a ‘post-photographic era’ – is that a digital artefact cannot be regarded as a historical document. More than that: we cannot keep time digitally. Not without a commitment to establishing and maintaining common timelines. Not when I can turn around in a day or a year’s time and change the content of this post without leaving a discernible trace.

If you’ve ever played with the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, you’ll have a fairly precise sense of the difficulties that the web has in keeping its own records and historicizing itself. When you’re even lucky enough to be able to access a snapshot of the particular website you’re looking for at a time that is close enough to the one of your choosing, many of the elements of the page won’t load and most of the links won’t work (due to an aggravated version of what goes by the wonderful moniker of ‘link rot’). Yet while the self-styled archive facility works poorly, in many respects the web is nothing if not its own archive, a vast repository of digital artefacts that are always present to the reader – both in that they are in a very meaningful sense produced on the user’s browser at the time they are accessed, and in that their temporal coordinates are often uncertain or missing altogether, so that not only you sometimes find it hard to tell where you are, but also when you are. (In the noteworthy case of Google Streetview images, you know exactly where but not when.)

The internet is always-now and, like cinema, like Forrest Gump, it aspires to subsume history, to represent it and contain it whole, except to an even greater extent than cinema its primary mode of access to the past is not narrative, but aesthetic, and consists in capturing and reproducing the key stylistic features of an epoch. The Hipstamatic app does just that: by changing the look of a picture it writes its subjects into the past; in similar fashion, by giving your current browser the look of the classic Netscape Navigator you can surf the web as if it were 1999 (an experience that can be heightened by giving the visited sites the Geocities treatment).

As for the mode of reception, the past thus conceived is primarily a commodity, albeit one that – as is so often the case on the web – is exchanged and consumed without any money changing hands. The site that this post is named after (motto: ‘The past is a foreign country. This is your passport.’) is exemplary in this respect, being a digest or collection of content created elsewhere, updated frequently and largely without comment, in a format that is ready to be liked and tweeted and linked on Facebook so that your friends too can exclaim or more likely mutter ‘oh - cool!’. The whole thing is like a perpetual hit-generating machine, and each stylistic intervention, each gimmicky idea is not given the time and space to develop into a fully-articulated project and become remotely useful or even – as in the case of steampunk – interestingly loathsome.

Like the faux-archival scenes in Gump ­– which, as Thomas Byers has noted, ‘by being overtly comic […] allow for a kind of "end of ideology" defense of the film, in which critics of the film's politics can be seen as humorless ideologues’ – How to Be a Retronaut pre-empts critique by being light-hearted, clever, technically accomplished. To say bad things about it would be to commit the cardinal sin of taking oneself too seriously, which fact alone makes the site a perfect haunt for the well-adjusted. And in a sense that is fair enough: who would bother and why to take issue with any of the material linked above, instead of pausing to enjoy it for the often genuinely clever thing that it is? Nor am I suggesting that the appreciative chuckle is acceptable so long as it belongs to a critical theorist. The issue is rather what happens when the retronaut becomes the model subject, the index of how to access and understand the past, and thus a figure to work against in order to recover the ‘genuine historicity’ whose loss, as Byers also reminds us, was lamented by Fredric Jameson ten years before Gumphit the screens, when the manifestations of that cultural logic were tame incomparison.

There is little that is comic about the treatment of history writ large in Gump. If it is true that the civil rights movement, feminism and the counterculture dealt a series of blows to the white patriarchal America of Forrest’s birth, in seeking to remove that trauma and undo its effects on society the film puts forward a peculiar idea of memory as disease that comes together in the wretched figure of Jenny: she who will die – after having apologised to Forrest for her past – of ‘some sort of virus’ that the doctors can’t cure, a virus that we are meant to literally associate with AIDS but is also, metaphorically, the morbid manifestation of a lifetime of wrong choices, wrong desires, wrong aspirations. When Jenny finally expires, and Forrest is left to raise alone the couple’s child, he does one last thing for her: he purchases and bulldozes her childhood home, the place where she had been abused by her father: a gesture whose crude intent and brute physicality contrasts with the subtle manipulation of the digitised historical record but reflects the same attitude, the same will to own the past and dispose of it as virtue dictates. It is at that point, having restored the figure of the patriarch and its attendant social and family values, that Forrest can cease to dwell on the past – for he now dwells in it. He has become the Retronaut.

Some useful essays on Forrest Gump (the Byers one in particular is excellent). Regrettably they're all behind steep academic walls at present:

Thomas B. Byers. ‘History Re-Membered: Forrest Gump, Postfeminist Masculinity, and the Burial of the Counterculture.’ Modern Fiction Studies Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 1996

Jennifer Hyland Wang. ‘“A Struggle of Contending Stories": Race, Gender, and Political Memory in "Forrest Gump”’. Cinema Journal

Stephen Prince. ‘True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory.’ Film Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3. (Spring, 1996), pp. 27-37.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

To The Home Which Everybody Owns

Between 1697 and 1807, 2,108 known ships left Bristol to make the trip to Africa and onwards across the Atlantic with slaves. An average of twenty slaving voyages set sail a year. Approximately 500,000 slaves were brought into slavery by these ships, representing one-fifth of the British slave trade during this time. Profits from the slave trade ranged from 50% to 100% during the early 18th century. Bristol was already a comparatively wealthy city prior to this trade; as one of the three points of the slave triangle (the others being Africa and the West Indies), the city prospered. This triangle was called the Triangular Trade. The Triangular Trade involved delivering, as well receiving, goods from each stop the ship took.

Racial tensions within the City 

Friday, 14 October 2011

Can you make porn come on my screen Dave?

UK prime sinister David Cameron took a turn from his usual chauvinist approach to small government by this week getting the big four ISPs to agree to an opt-in for users who want the option of porn on their PCs.

Based on a joint Mother’s Union/Department of Education report, it’s a nice but probably feeble try at a ‘central approach’ to the commercialisation and sexualisation of children, in effect little different than changing one’s browser preferences, setting up different users at log-in stage or buying a porn detector from the likes of McAfee. But as we’re frequently told these days we can’t trust ourselves (as Brent says 'it's not for us to say' on the issue of censorship), let alone porn’s purveyors: the levees broke on this in the early noughties and it’s going to be very difficult to contain.

Years of dial-up taught us patience we had grown unaccustomed to as seasoned and avid consumers; patience quickly scorned as we pounced like virtual predators when the i-porn became freely available, obsessing with the ‘money shot’. From there it’s a dark journey into an anarchic free enterprise underworld where we fall prey to our baser instincts, uploading image after image to our memory banks, for hour after hour. Yet it’s not addictive or harmful to others just liberating, we convince ourselves.

Sure, all this pro-am action, the vast majority of it probably taking place in California, probably HAS broadened my sexual outlook. Like so many other activity t’net is good for, it’s an able surrogate for imagination. But I cant help feeling such awareness has come via a sleazy pact; souls decay as retinas burn. That’s just a personal take, then there’s the ongoing objectification of women, society’s oversexualisation, the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values, harming not just children but also adults. Still the Graun ran a piece defending its liberating effects by, er, someone from Porn.

And like so many other Up, Close and Personal elements of the internet that broadband has facilitated (social rather than sexual networks have only recently gained more web traffic), it came at a frontier moment, where developments in technology fast outpaced the ability (or indeed willingness – rather more lazy than laissez-faire) of regulators to rein in problem areas. It’ll be interesting to see that even with public support whether politicians can really play gatekeeper, the benign Big Daddy, on this.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Years Zero

The turn of this century was a strange, vague period; especially in the harsh light of how its first decade has shaped up. The noughties, distinguished (?) by the most perverse of cultural enthusiasms, was heralded with a sense of weary anxiety and trepidation. But of course that was just my experience of it. It's uncanny to reflect on - to invest with meaning - a time that felt like a waiting room; a meandering interlude between one way of life and another promising to arrive. Discussing the past with those who were present, we can take fragile comfort by conceptualizing ourselves as a distinct generation defined by shared moments; accepting with a faint smile that our time has passed (open regret being as taboo as ever). In more pretentious moments, it can be rationalised as some (sub)cultural epoch; a world marketed and internalised as our own rite of passage, our cultural currency. I could assert that it was a bewildering time to be of a certain age, but I have to concede that for me it was bewildering. To be honest, it felt like I was surrounded by a lot of mystifying certainties back then.

The ideological assumptions that shuffled the U.K. from one millennium to the next is still open to debate. Most of 'us' had known nothing but a Conservative government, but the direction which Labour would take us was to some degree uncertain. The signs were there, but 'we' were still youthful enough to naively maintain some glimmer of hope. CGI, the mobile phone and the internet still retained elements of magical novelty. For most of the 90s, they were generally regarded as reserved for certain types of people. We were told in preceding years that we should aspire to be whatever types of people they were, but many of us assumed it was only those types of people who were paying much attention. It was as difficult to identify who was right then as much as it is now. We were probably too busy diverting our confusion into entertainment products, the tastes we often mistook for needs. Lurking somewhere inside that common mistake, a vague sense of generational identity was found. Listening to 'You Don't Know Me' today, I hear one world making an exit; weary and unsure of the one about to enter. I doubt that was the intention of the song, and the years that followed demonstrate how we can't tidily pinpoint our anxieties according to the calendar. Society is experiencing a far more overwhelming transition in 2011 than we could imagine in 1999. We didn't realise how limited our perspective actually was back then, but history teaches us that's nothing new. 

Van Helden's track was pretty retro for 1999, but it hardly sounds dated in the context of today's pop music. The context of how we hear it may have changed, but even that can defy easy categorisation. My most vivid memory of hearing it was passing through an unlikely (?) location, while the historical and emotional significance of the site was explained to me. Ghosts were mentioned; but we punctuated the old sad story by turning up the volume to bounce our tired and emotional heads, until another subject of conversation came up. The party we were returning from didn't conform to standard 90s cliches either. Not the discofied set of the video, that's for sure. A less contained space for hedonism than the above mise en scene presented as the norm. It may be tasteless to suggest that location's history gained resonance as the above song hitched along for the ride, but for me it accenuated historical reverberations in the (then) present. It may be more arrogant to separate a very deep historical wound from the indulgent, transient context that brings these wounds to one's attention in the first place. When, where, and how we learn things matters to what is being learned. After all, atrocity and disco exist in the same world as my thoughts do. The histories of both continue to effect the direction they take, even unconsciously. At certain times, the most unlikely of partners can join in on the neuron dance. And the bigger the crowd gets, the harder the outcome is to predict.

I never actually saw the above video until I just cut and pasted it. There's been enough water under the bridge for the song to survive somewhere outside its visual packaging. It was an anthem of something. Twelve years ago, I may have believed it spoke 'for' me. A few years later, it was more likely to be speaking to me; on behalf of those within immediate orbit, or those mediated at a further distance. And now? Perhaps it's lyrics are more applicable to an ephemeral space hovering somewhere in between: 'Here'. That virtual world of known unknowns: demanding our responses are as immediate as possible, be they strident or passive. Where the structure of the exchange decides the final result, far more than any strength of argument or solid confirmation of fact. A world that doesn't really exist; but is nevertheless capable of moving our attention towards unexpected places. Leading our thought processes to novelty, amusement, offense, events, argument, atrocity; occasionally realising that our bodies are lagging further behind the further we seek. Every easy click limiting our time and movement, a few more minutes and hours that will never return. The electronic caricature of a cyclical time and personal immediacy long lost to us. Yet another disease of language we couldn't vaccinate. Diagnosis alone cures nothing.

So what am I talking about 'here'? Am I making any sense? That depends on who it's written for, which I thought would be obvious: You of course, dear reader. The other side of the interface. If you're uncertain whether I actually am speaking to you, then we can revert to the oldest of computer games to establish a connection. They once excitedly called it 'interactive', a word used a lot less with regards to the internet in 2011. Movements diagonal, horizontal, vertical, triangular, back and forth; eventually receding back into the darkness, once the screen bids farewell. Any interaction in these spaces is the laziest kind of performance. If you opt out of playing you for the time being, we'll accept that as a statement of indifference or ignorance. For the time being, you may not have even arrived 'here' yet. At some point over the next few weeks (months, years) you could be finding yourself 'here' for the first time. Then you can grace your silence with a minor judgement; as swift as it is forgettable. You've 'been' somewhere, and so on to the next visit, and so on to the next, and so on.

If the memories dicussed at the beginning of the post elude any wider significance, then this platform denies their significance outright. The internet has proven to be a poor replacement for the pop song, the car journey, the party, or indeed history passed on via the spoken word. We can fool ourselves that it goes some way to satisfying our communal longings, but in 2023 its features and talking points will be a far dimmer memory than a disposable song heard from the back of a car. No pop song released today will evoke much in the way of a shared memory. No one will convince anyone that ghost victims of recent atrocities haunt these networks, much less those of three centuries ago. This post, and its source, will be of no consequence to anyone within days. The memories I allude to are unreliable enough to those who can remember them. Opinions or autobiographical details expressed before or after are quite useless. My intentions won't matter, if they ever did. To enquire why I wrote any of the above would be more futile than friendly. You could ask me five minutes after I click 'publish', tomorrow, next week, or five years from now. Where it all came from, and where it wanted to go, would remain a cold case. You'd be none the wiser. How could you be? You don't even know me.

(NB. This post was corrected after spotting several typos, which only added to the general rambling klutziness of the piece.)

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Ends Of History

"It is true that Columbus harbored strong prejudices about the peaceful islanders whom he misnamed "Indians" - he was prejudiced in their favor. For Columbus, they were "the handsomest men and the most beautiful women" he had ever encountered. He praised the generosity and lack of guile among the Tainos, contrasting their virtues with Spanish vices. He insisted that although they were without religion, they were not idolaters; he was confident that their conversion would come through gentle persuasion and not through force. The reason, he noted, is that Indians possess a high natural intelligence. There is no evidence that Columbus thought that Indians were congenitally or racially inferior to Europeans. Other explorers such as Pedro Alvares Cabral, Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan, and Walter Raleigh registered similar positive impressions about the new world they found."
"A sincere effort to study other cultures “from within” requires a rejection of the Western lens of cultural relativism. Multiculturalists who wish to take non-Western cultures seriously must take seriously their repudiation of relativism. Otherwise a humble openness to other cultures becomes an arrogant dismissal of their highest claims to truth."
Dinesh D'Souza, The End of Racism, 1995

"Columbus inaugurated perhaps the greatest experiment in political, economic, and cultural cannibalism in the history of the Western World."   
 Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, 1992

"Columbus should be honored, for in so doing, we honor Western civilization. Some cultures are better than others: a free society is better than slavery; reason is better than brute force as a way to deal with other men; productivity is better than stagnation. In fact, Western civilization stands for man at his best. It stands for the values that make human life possible: reason, science, self-reliance, individualism, ambition, productive achievement."
Michael Berliner, Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute, 1992

"Could it be that the human calamity caused by the arrival of Columbus, was a sort of dress rehearsal of what is to come as the ozone becomes more depleted, the earth warms, and the rain forests are destroyed?" 
 Ishmael Reed, Founder of the Before Columbus Foundation, 1992

"What did Christopher Columbus do, discover America? If he hadn't, somebody else would have and we'd still be here. Big deal."
John Waters, film-maker,1992

"The cruelties multiplied. Las Casas saw soldiers stabbing Indians for sport, dashing babies’ heads on rocks. And when the Indians resisted, the Spaniards hunted them down, equipped for killing with horses, armor plate, lances, pikes, rifles, crossbows, and vicious dogs. Indians who took things belonging to the Spaniards - they were not accustomed to the concept of private ownership and gave freely of their own possessions - were beheaded, or burned at the stake.
Las Casas’ testimony was corroborated by other eyewitnesses. A group of Dominican friars, addressing the Spanish monarchy in 1519, hoping for the Spanish government to intercede, told about unspeakable atrocities, children thrown to dogs to be devoured, new-born babies born to women prisoners flung into the jungle to die."
"Let me make myself clear. I am not interested in either denouncing or exalting Columbus. It is too late for that. We are not writing a letter of recommendation for him to decide his qualifications for undertaking another voyage to another part of the universe. To me, the Columbus story is important for what it tells us about ourselves, about our time, about the decisions we have to make for our century, for the next century.
Why this great controversy today about Columbus and the celebration of the quincentennial? Why the indignation of native Americans and others about the glorification of that conqueror? Why the heated defense of Columbus by others? The intensity of the debate can only be because it is not about 1492, it’s about 1992."
 Howard Zinn, Christopher Columbus, 1992

Saturday, 8 October 2011

'90s Haunto-Shite Pt. 3

Further to Found Objects' "Open Letter to the BBC" over at the '70s blog, here's a last gasp of beeb iconography from the '90s. I keep thinking of this sort of design aesthetic whenever I listen to Destroyer's Kaputt (which is pretty great stuff btw).

Monday, 26 September 2011

Profiting From Depression

It's difficult to comprehend the utter depravity of contemporary global capitalism, until you see something like this, in which a deeply amoral market trader expresses his disbelief at the amorality of the financial system. When the bewildered civilisations of the future look back at us, they will think we make the late Roman Empire look like a particularly austere nunnery.

But hey, voting for Ed Miliband should fix it.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The punctuation, was weird

The default mode of 90s TV was irony. It was incubated in music and youth television, before infecting general light entertainment. Then it attempted a putsch in arts programs:

Matthew Collings’ This Is Modern Art and the follow up Hello Culture were the main spearhead with their knowing voice overs, the refusal to pass judgment, the acceptance that high culture had come to an impasse. The scripts Collings speaks from, like the accompanying books, have no difficult concepts and use short sentences. Few words, little meaning. Collings throws in references to The Situationists or Clement Greenberg, but in a way which suggests ‘hey, don’t worry if you’ve never read them their moment has passed’. The End of History – not just something for policy wonks. In your living room, right now.

There is now a ‘Collings Shrine’ on YouTube, but watching the programs again is a little disappointing. It’s interesting to see him chat with Patrick Heron or Elizabeth Peyton (maybe the only time they’ve ever been on British TV?), and I personally don’t find him irritating as others do, but the lack of insight or challenge is striking now. 

There was another way however:

Obviously both critics wanted to avoid art-doc cliché . But Meades made the opposite choices to Collings. Collings and his producers put all the distancing techniques into the script and voice over. The look of the programs are in fact rather conventional, they just go a bit ‘grungy’ every so often. Instead, Meades plays it straight as a presenter. He really is a patrician English man barking cultural instructions at you. 

It could be Kenneth Clarke. The scripts are not gushing or trite, but they are not detached either. Instead they are polemical: you know what he likes and what he doesn’t like, for what reasons and why it matters.The irony, the distancing techniques, are instead in the camera work, the music, the extras, the props. These are used not just to take the piss, but as a way to make you look again, to look harder at what is on screen:

Collings defence was that to make serious programs about artists at the end of the 20th century had to done ironically because of all the accumulated clichés. The Meades approach ducks this by taking things that were never presented seriously by television – Birmingham, pigs, post-war church architecture - and treating them as if they were the most important subjects in the world. In fact many of his subjects are just the sought thing that were used so witlessly by 90s irony e.g. pubs and drinking, Belgium, golf etc. The programs move quickly and pack in a lot of examples, facts, opinions and jokes. Your brain is working really hard for 30 minutes. 

Ultimately, the Collings programs suffer from the problem of all TV series where a critic or academic is brought from the outside into television. So often these people just don’t actually like the medium or are afraid to take on the producers and get what they actually want. By not treating seriously something that they think of as ‘dumbed down’ from the start, they end up with something naff and full of padding. 

For the viewer the frustrating thing about Meades’ programs is: why hasn’t it had any effect on the rest of arts or history TV? How can Simon Schama still be striding across fields after this:

But then Newsnight outlived The Day Today.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Desecration Acts, Coda

Part Three: Slouching Toward Ypsilanti

Getting the "band" together. Some twenty years after the fact. Hey, why not?

Nevermind that, back in 1974, it had largely started out as an art-school hijinx, the product of youthful boredom and malaise and surplus energy, designed to befuddle a handful of locals through an infrequent series of "guerilla" (i.e., uninvited) performances around town. Freeform guitar caterwauling, tape loops, a version of "Iron Man" performed with a rhythm section consisting of a coffee can and vacuum cleaner...that sort of thing. As one of the founders, Mike Kelley &mdash, would recall looking back over two decades:

"All of the members of Destroy All Monsters had grown up during the alternative cultural renaissance of the late sixties. We had all been raised on the psychedelic excesses of the MC5 and the Stooges, and the general feeling of that time: that every form could be combined and all excesses were possible. Now we were in the dark ages. Detroit's economy had collapsed and taken with it its radical culture. Detroit was a dead city. And Ann Arbor, once the 'drug capital of the midwest,'...and a thriving radical intellectual scene, was now slipping back into being a sleepy and conservative fraternity-row college town. All of the musicians of the previous generation were trying to adapt to the cleaner hard rock sound of the day. ...This was the milieu that birthed Destroy All Monsters. We were designed to be a 'fuck you' to the prevailing popular culture."

To say nothing of the "shits and giggles" component. At any rate, within a couple of years, two of the main instigators -- Kelley and guitarist Jim Shaw — departed to the west coast to enter grad school, leaving the other two members of Destroy All Monsters to carry on with the enterprise however they saw fit. What soon followed for the outfit is history, or at least a footnote in the annals of the Midwest's contributions to the American "proto-punk" canon. With the Stooges' Ron Asheton and the MC5's Michael Davis in the lineup, it became — according to member Cary Loren — a period of "formalism" mixed with "out-of-control energies and egos." By the 1980s, the group had ceased to be, while Kelley and Shaw were off embarking on what would become highly successful art careers.

Come 1994, the members of DAM found reason to look back to DAM's beginnings as they assembled a collection of the group's early, unreleased recordings. After some discussion, they decided — why the hell not give it another go? The timing was a little ironic, seeing how the early '90s already an orgy of "reunion" tours by acts from the 1960s and '70s getting back together for the sake reliving a few glory days of yore. From the Swingin' Medallions to Three Dog Night, eventually followed by — not too many years later – the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks. In doing so, the idea was effectively reset all the gauges to zero — using their original 1974 "art-noise" intentions as their starting point. Sporadic performances, tours and CDs would result in the years that followed. Of these, the album Swamp Gas — recorded in the final years of the decade/century and seeing release in 2001 – perhaps best embodies DAM's initial intent.

As far as historical revisionism is concerned, Swamp Gas retells the latter half of the "American Century" through a haze of lysergic mind-rot, "alternative"/New Age spirituality, UFO cults, "trash" culture, and conspiracy theories; all of it threaded by a free-form racket or free-form jamming, yakkety guitar, droning noise, primitive electronics, vari-speed tape collages, and the occasional cartoon sound effect. An open mystical invocation — reminiscent of bits from Timothy Leary's Turn On, Tune In... LP and attributed to Madame Blavatsky — tells of the "Seven Worlds of Eternity" and urges the listener to "kill all desire." The voice of Sun Ra recurrently drifts through the miasma of noise. At one point, Mike Kelley steps to the mic delivering a 17-minute long ode to the famed UFO sightings over Dexter, MI in March of 1966 as they were recorded by witnesses and law enforcement officials, invoking Sananda and Mark David Chapman and Project Blue Book, while intermittently offering interpretations of the top ten hits of the spring of '66 ("Nowhere Man," "California Dreaming," "Homeward Bound"). All of it coming wrapped in a copy of the Swamp Gas Gazette, a mock newspaper bearing extended Heaven's Gate-styled texts on UFOs and Sananda and whatnot, as well as a couple of articles purporting to reveal "The Truth" about Iron Butterfly and Question Mark & the Mysterians.

It's an extended exercise in mind-fuckery that's sometimes bewildering, and sometimes merely numbing...not unlike hearing Amon Düül's Psychedelic Underground hammered out in an amphetamine blur. It is, admittedly, not an incredible album. Ultimately, it's an artifact — an effort at channeling the aesthetic spirits of a particular bygone time, resuscitating the stillborn potential of a creative em-oh and an era-specific sense of restlessness and disenchantment. Something about the cathartic noisiness of it all probably still felt somehow vital, just as necessary as the whole shits-and-giggles aspect. Which I suppose is what one could expect from a long-delayed transmission from the beginning of the Age of Diminishing Expectations.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

[   Part One   ]               [   Part Two  ]

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Pyramid Scheme

It is a fascinating spectacle that London, home of the gargantuan Ponzi scheme that is global neoliberal capitalism, is at last to host its first great pyramid, perhaps man's most deeply symbolic form of architecture. Pyramids are diagrammatic manifestations of the basic principles of sacred geometry, in which the apex, the point, represents one or absolute unity, and the base, as a square, represents materialisation - the four sides being the first product of multiplication (2 x 2), as well as the four classical elements (air, earth, fire, water), and the three dimensions of the experienced world, plus time. The lines spanning from the apex to the base represent two, or duality, and the triangular side faces represent the trinity, or The Mother, the triangle as the simplest possible shape being the mother of form. As such, a pyramid expresses how unity passes into manifestation via the principle of creation, and the link between the material realm and the infinite.

Pyramids are a recurring historical motif, from the Ziggurats of the earliest civilisations of Mesopotamia to the Egyptian, Nubian, Chinese and numerous Mesoamerican cultures. Although the overt purpose of these structures is not always known, their purposes are generally agreed to be connected to either astronomy, worship or burial, or some combination of the three. Certainly the great pyramids of Egypt are considered to have been primarily burial mounds, in which the great kings of the Old and New Kingdom dynasties were prepared for their journey to the afterlife. The mummified rulers were buried alongside the tools, instructions and symbolic apparatus considered to be necessary for their journey into the hereafter, and as such we can perhaps consider the pyramids, working "in reverse" from the base to the apex, as being magical machines for the transition from the material to the infinite. That many of the mummified kings were buried with portions of their great wealth offers a tantalising suggestion that no doubt appeals to the contemporary wealthy who often bury themselves in pyramidal mausoleums: that you can take it with you.

As sacred structures, the great pyramids of Giza were based around the golden ratio, 0.618:1, or 1:1.618 (1.618 x 0.618 = 1) - a ratio you can get a visual representation of if you inspect your credit card - and their passageways were aligned with the constellation Orion, which the Egyptians considered to be the home of the god Osiris. The Shard is, however, a Faustian pyramid. Whereas for the Egyptians the sacred was infinite, for we Faustians the infinite is sacred, and rather than The Shard obeying the principles of celestial harmony, it instead obeys the principle of extension. In creating the tallest building in the UK and the EU, architect Renzo Piano has squandered his sex energy in the pointless breaking of records. Like the similarly grandiose Bishopsgate Tower, The Shard has been funded by Qatari petrodollars, the Arab oil states desperate to convert them into something, anything tangible before the collapse of American global hegemony renders their value zero. Sadly, if there's any cultural artefact with even less of a future than the US Dollar, it's the skyscraper; symbol of a future of endless growth, and not of the future of grindingly irreversible decline we're going to experience. What will finish the skyscraper as a viable form is not likely to be its direct energy consumption in an era of depleting energy supplies, but rather the simple fact that an ever-shrinking global economy will not be able to support the giant corporations with their Promethean reach and gluttonous requirement for office space. Similarly, the exotic materials that clad the more recent buildings will not be replaceable when the rareified manufacturing facilities that produce them succumb to the decomplexification that will accompany our long decline. Ironically, it may be the most recent, environmentally friendly buildings that enter redundancy soonest.

In many ways The Shard, like the ancient pyramids an attempt to concretely manifest the eternal, will be a manifestation of the ephemeral. As with the other tall buildings around it, it can perhaps best be seen as a store of useful materials that will not be available for too much longer - a vertical salvage dump. It is believed the white limestone that originally clad the outside of the pyramids at Giza was used to build the mosques of Cairo. Perhaps the treated glass and engineering steel of The Shard will end up supporting the temples of the new savage religions that will arise in its dust.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Mint Deville

I should do a post on the 70's blog about Mink DeVille. They're the kind of band that interest me these days - the kind that fall awkwardly between the "official" and "alternative" histories of pop and rock. Willy DeVille was a Seventies rock'n'roll revivalist with a difference; his aim was to repopularise the oft-forgotten hispanic, cajun and gitano roots of popular music. Coming from the wrong (ethnic) side of the tracks, when he sang about his girlfriend's parents not allowing her to see him, there was always an uncomfortable truth to it.

Here's a late(ish) gem from his solo days. It's just a great song.....