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.

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[   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.