Saturday, June 29, 2013

Killing The Message, Not The Messenger

I'm sorry.

It's been brought to my attention that my recent posts, "Percepts - Concepts - Precepts," parts one and two, may have offended some people. I've been told that the posts came off as arrogant, insensitive, and "jerky." 

I'm grateful to know this. It's important to me to be aware of how my behaviors in the world effect others. I have absolutely no intention of hurting anyone's feelings, putting anyone in their place, denigrating or dismissing anyone. None of this is ad hominemIf your name was mentioned in my previous posts and you felt attacked, I am sorry. I consider works and ideas independent of their creators and communicators. I don't mean to kill the messenger, even if sometimes I think it is necessary to kill the message. 

My purpose in writing is to think. My intention is to work through ideas, works, writing, reading, and to come to deeper understandings of what they do and mean. In the process of this writing-thinking, I apply certain criteria as tests of the works under consideration. By the same token, the works test my criteria. The goal of the process is to change something: often my criteria, always my thinking, occasionally the works under consideration. The goal is to critique ideas, works, values, and conventions, not individuals. 

Contrary to what our teachers may have told us, it's not that there are no wrong answers. It's closer to the case to say that there are no right answers. Everything is up for negotiation. That negotiation happens in the conversation that is history: the history of ideas, of art, of music, social history, personal history. I don't consider my positions and opinions privileged. Instead, I think it's valuable to "think out loud;" to share, as honestly as possible, the process of working with and through ideas, texts, and works of art. I welcome clarifications of positions and couter-proposals. Please feel free to comment here or contact me elsewhere. 

Ideas and texts and works of art create and disseminate values. Often, this happens without regard for, or in spite of, the author's conscious intentions. Sometimes, the impact of a text may, in fact, communicate an ethic that is contrary to what its author believes and how she or he lives. Many of the works I have critiqued may fall into this category. And I realize that my criticisms, too, may convey an attitude that works against my intentions. Nevertheless, I believe that the debate is crucial. It's the only way that the works, the texts, the ideas can get better. Ultimately, it's the only way we can get better (i.e., smarter and more compassionate). We all need to be willing to put our ideas to the test that is the reception and critique of others. We all need to be willing to admit when we're wrong, to revise our positions, and, when appropriate, to say we're sorry. 

So, I'll finish this where I started, with a genuine apology to anyone who took offense at the previous posts. I'm sorry. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rock and Roll Eulogies: Levon Helm (May 26, 1940 - April 19, 2012)

Levon Helm (May 26, 1940 - April 19, 2012)

It’s November 1976, and Levon Helm, true to his surname, is at the tiller of a vessel that’s pulling into port. After years sailing from juke joint to dive bar to festival to theater to arena, The Band is coming ashore. For nearly the whole journey, Helm has been at the drums, tacking a steady course amidst the swirling tumult. No one else in The Band travels the straight and narrow, so Helm has to. Robbie Robertson’s guitar playing is all fragmented barbs, little yowls and exhortation with nary a chord progression in sight. Rick Danko’s bass is a drunken sailor. His stumbling lines defy the rigid geometry of the alley he’s traversing even as his serpentine path defines the alley’s dimensions more thoroughly than a surveyor ever could. The Band’s best songs always feature Richard Manuel’s voice: a barn swallow caressing a subtle mist from the bellies of the clouds, before hurtling earthward to pluck a lone berry from the dense shrub; and like that, it’s airborne again, wings spread against the tremulous sun. Meanwhile, Garth Hudson’s organ is a ghost, never taking material form; merely suggesting that someone – or something – has passed through the open door into the space of the song. So it’s left to Levon to propel the craft that is The Band, marshaling their collective energies toward a unified destination. Without Levon The Band would’ve been just a band.

When Levon sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” at the Last Waltz, The Band’s farewell at Winterland in San Francisco in November of 1976, the song came to mean something it had never meant before. Prior to this performance I never liked the song much. But at The Last Waltz, Levon sang it knowing it was the last time he ever would.

If you read the lyrics on the page, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is insipid, riddled with clichés about rural life and the honor of impoverishment and defeat. The old meek-shall-inherit-the-earth softshoe doesn’t shine the apple anymore. We’re wise. The meek candidate’s been trounced by might-makes-right. The song tries weakly to integrate itself into the tradition of American ballads about simple folk who take their organic ideals to the market of the modernizing world only to be told those ideals won’t fetch a tarnished penny; that the values they’ve amassed in place of fortune are worthless. But Robbie Robertson, who wrote the song, is at once too smart and too dumb to convey his story in a language that could practice what it’s preaching: a language that’s simple and organic, constructing its values from the materials found on the ground, in the air, and in the mouths of the people it champions. It’s too discursive, too consciously literate. It’s not “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground.”

What’s more, the song sides with the wrong side. Sure, the song is about what politics do to individuals who don’t have a say in those politics. But Virgil Caine, the song’s protagonist, plays as the embodiment of the old South, of slavery and bigotry and a deadly unwillingness to reevaluate. Old Dixie needed to be driven down. As with recent literature about the victimization of German citizens in World War II, this is a story that doesn’t have a right to be told. The defeats of Dixie and Nazi Germany are two examples of stories that don’t have two sides. The lives of individuals do not exist apart from history. On the contrary, history is nothing but the cumulative effects and actions of those lives. Virgil Caine didn’t have to take “a rebel stand.” He might have joined the underground railroad, he might have been an abolitionist, he might have migrated north, or all the way to Canada. He might’ve become Robbie Robertson’s grandpa. But he didn’t. He fought for the Confederacy and he lost a brother in the war. His story, as told by the song, is a song of the defeated, the disempowered. But it’s not so. The defeated and disempowered in this story are the Africans, forcibly removed from their homes, from their families, from their continent, and enslaved by white people who didn’t want to pay for labor that would cut into their profits. American exceptionalism is built off this will to profit; this despicable willingness to value one’s own financial wealth over another’s simple well-being. Virgil Caine deserved to go down, as did all of Old Dixie. For Robbie Robertson to have denied this is reprehensible. At the very least, Robertson owes his long and comfortable livelihood to a music invented by those who, after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, were slowly repatriated into humanity.

But as played at The Last Waltz, the song seems to be about Levon Helm (the one Southerner in a band of Canadians) being driven down by the end of the Band and by Robbie’s attempts to wrest control of the Band’s artistic legacy away from the other members. When Levon sings “you can’t lift a Caine back up when he’s in defeat,” I hear him singing about the desperate decline that had been initiated by The Last Waltz. The concert, intended as a celebration, possibly as a new beginning, is in fact, a wake, a funeral, a walk to the gallows. Guest after guest testify and deliver their eulogies: Ronnie Hawkins, with whom the Band got their start (as the Hawks), Muddy Waters, Neil Young (“I just wanna say, before I start, that it’s one of the pleasures of my life to be able to be on this stage with these people tonight”), Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, and finally, Bob Dylan, the man who’d buried everybody. Winterland is decorated like a funeral parlor. The concert ends with “I Shall Be Released,” for god’s sake. The signs couldn’t be clearer. There was nowhere else for The Band to go. The arc of their career as an independent group had been straight down, from the masterpiece of Music From BigPink, to the good enough, self-titled, follow-up, to a string of records each less inspired than the last. Robbie escaped to movie soundtracks and insipid spirituality (when my wife was pregnant, our natural birthing instructor played one of Robbie’s solo albums during a relaxation exercise). But the others were digging their graves. Just ten years later, while on tour, Richard Manuel would hang himself in a Florida motel room, Rick Danko would spend a number of years in a Japanese prison for cocaine possession and then die of a cocaine-aided heart attack in 1999. To his credit, only Levon found a way to reconstruct a rewarding musical life after the Band. But the impending tragedy of their story – nearly Greek in its depths – was already there in his performance at The Last Waltz. He alone knew what he was playing for that night. He alone knew the challenge that lay ahead. How do you descend from the mountaintop and go back to plowing the fields? He sings his plight: “I don’t mind chopping wood/And I don’t care if the moneys no good.” The only way to survive is to chop the wood for chopping wood’s sake, not to care if the money’s no good. Levon’s performance is defiant, sad, triumphant. And the arrangement of this version transforms the song – the passages where tempo and momentum deteriorate, the expansiveness abetted by the horn arrangements (more New Orleans than Memphis) – from a simple ballad to something much less definable, much less containable. Levon can feel the weight of defeat. He knows – after singing it hundreds of times before – that this is the last time he’ll sing this song with these four bandmates. This is the last time he’ll sing it with them, for them, to them, against them (against one of them, at least). He’s got to pack it all into this one performance. He’s got to say everything this song can say all at once. He’s got to say more than this song’s ever said before. And he’s got to stick the landing or the whole song, the whole night, maybe the whole career, will have been for naught.

You can see and hear these realities strike Levon in the second chorus. The camera zooms in subtly on his face as he opens his eyes to see Robbie and Rick in front of him to his right. At the start of the third verse the arrangement inserts a breakdown in which the rhythm dissipates ever so briefly, only to be revived by an equally brief horn figure. Levon delivers the lines that follow, “Like my father before me/I’m a work the land,” with a vehemence that verges on vengeance. This reference to family is a reference to the “us” that opposes and is opposed to “them.” It’s not strictly about biology, but about those who fathered this music into existence – many of whom were there that night to perform. Levon is working their land. At the same time, you can hear him chastising The Band – most of all, Robbie, and maybe a little bit, himself – for deciding to leave that land behind. Robbie has the city in his sights. But Levon’s devotion is too deep, his commitment too fundamental. He will be utterly convincing in an unlikely role in Coal Miner’s Daughter, playing the Kentucky coal miner of the title, father of country singer, Loretta Lynn. And he will settle in Woodstock, New York where he will host a series of concerts in his barn, known as “The Midnight Rambles.” These shows doubled as potluck dinners in which audience members brought homemade food to share while they enjoyed Levon and a revolving cast of friends and guests playing American music the way it was presented before the Beatles-ification of rock and roll. Levon alone stayed behind, tending the land, avoiding the disintegration that would claim two of his brothers, while also refusing to run for cover.

The performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” that night in 1976 is a statement and a scrapbook. When Levon sings, “In the winter of ‘65/ We were hungry, just barely alive,” he’s not only singing about 1865, but also about 1965. That winter, having split with Ronnie Hawkins, they were just Levon and The Hawks, playing dives and juke joints. Literally and figuratively, they were hungry. In the film of The Last Waltz, Rick Danko talks about ducking out of the local grocery store with bologna in their pockets. But six months later, they’d be on the road with Dylan, suddenly the most important backing band in the world. Eleven years later, at The Last Waltz, Levon would sing them down: Garth, and Rick and Richard and Robbie. He would sing them down into the ground; into an afterlife that could never live up to the paradise of their days on earth.

Rock and Roll Eulogies: Johnny Cash (February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003)

Periodically, I'll be posting rock and roll eulogies for folks recently departed. This, the first, for Johnny Cash, was originally Published on Pitchfork ( in 2003, shortly after he died. The eulogy format allowed me to say some things about Johnny Cash and about music more generally that I might not have said otherwise. That's the aim of the series, to use the eulogy as a slit in the fabric of critical response; to find a new way in and a new way out of the music. 

Johnny Cash (February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003)
Rock musicians have learned how to grow old gracefully. That sucks. If the Rolling Stones haven’t earned the right to grow old dis-gracefully, who then? Surveying the aging landscape of rock and roll – growing older, on average, just like the rest of us – I am unable to find examples of older and better. When I voice my distress, friends point to Neil Young, who for a while, hung on to a notion of principle and a sense of fuck-youness. True enough. But these elements on albums like Arc and Ragged Glory are merely echoes of more fully-realized value and valor in earlier works, like Tonight’s The Night or, my personal favorite, On The Beach. None of my friends are willing to dispute that these 70s albums are, simply-put, better than Neil’s work in the late-80s and 90s. But why? We can admire a man in Neil’s shoes, at Neil’s age in 1990 asking “why do I keep fucking up?” But this is a reaction prompted by Neil Young’s age, not in spite of it. It’s the equivalent of “pretty good for an old guy.” For me, growing old dis-gracefully, would consist of carrying on with the work of rock music, paraphrasing the Flaming Lips: to provide needles for our balloons. From the start, rock and roll took aim at deconstructing accepted wisdom and convention. Trouble is, as rock altered culture, culture – in its limitless capacity as the ultimate, adaptable organism – expanded to accept and conventionalize rock. So, the Rolling Stones’ hedonistic misbehavior was subsumed as an archetype. We all had a bit of Mick and Keith in us. The question, as a Stones fan, was whether we were a bit more Mick or a bit more Keith. And the useful lesson (if that’s not overstating it) was how to arrange one’s priorities to allow the Mick and the Keith within us to peacefully coexist. The hope, of course, was that they might combine within us to produce the personal equivalent of satisfaction. The real Mick and Keith, in order to assume their archetypal status, had to allow the culture to subsume them. By definition, a myth must live within the culture. The Rolling Stones’ subsumption, though, was abetted by the commercial iconization (or branding, if you’ve read Naomi Klein) of the band-as-product. The easiest thing for a consumer culture to get a handle on (to handle, to subdue) is a product – it’s what our culture is good at; it’s the culture’s fundamental skill. The Stones branded themselves as the hedonistic, devil-may-care alternative. They made themselves the accepted/acceptable, visible edge of the hidden underground of sex, drugs, and selfish positivity. The Rolling Stones’ logo – a massive lips and tongue – is understood, almost universally, as a stand-in for the massive cock they couldn’t use in mainstream culture. Once the Stones conformed/confirmed themselves as products, once Mick was a product and Keith was a product, once Mick-and-Keith was a product, their ability to deconstruct anything was rendered ineffectual. The massive cock was impotent. I mention this only because, after listening to the new Johnny Cash album, The Man Comes Around, I am struck by how, at the very end of an unexpectedly long life, Johnny Cash is making rock music which is as vital as anyone’s. You can quibble about whether Johnny Cash is, or ever was, rock if you want to. But there’s a picture of Johnny Cash at a piano in the Sun studios with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley which, for me, settles the argument historically. And there are three Johnny Cash albums on American Recordings (I’m leaving out the album he did with Willie Nelson) which settle it formally. I find myself at odds to explain the miracle of Johnny Cash’s late albums. In lieu of explanation I offer the following observations:
• Johnny Cash reaches me as an inevitability. There are those who would call him timeless – and, I must confess, I nearly reached for that word – but it’s not the right word. If we know a little about the history and development of 20th Century music, we know that there was a time, not so long ago, when nothing like Johnny Cash’s music existed. What’s more, most of us have heard pre-Johnny-Cash-music. We’ve ridden in that time machine. And though I’m not idealistic enough to think we can shed the present when we visit the past, I do find it easy to imagine a pre-Johnny-Cash-world. As a result Johnny Cash’s music is a historical contingency – that’s to say it constitutes a link in an evolutionary chain (or, more accurately, a node in a complex, web-like construct of intersections, redirections, collisions and influences). Johnny Cash’s music inherited DNA from all sorts of sources: from rural music, such as hillbilly music and country and western, bluegrass and country swing; from religious music: European hymns and African-American spirituals; from both delta blues and burgeoning urban blues; from folk forms and work songs and oral history. More recently Johnny Cash’s music plucked songs themselves from contemporary sources like Nick Cave, Will Oldham, Trent Reznor and Glen Danzig. According to this description, Johnny Cash was and is, more or less, indistinguishable from rock and roll: both emerged from their precedents as if inevitable.
• I have trouble with my tenses when talking about Johnny Cash, because (and this is where the adjective ‘timeless’ can more accurately be used) in the context of his beginning, various middles and his end, Johnny Cash comes to us as a universal world view – his lyrical concerns and his unfettered arrangements are consistent from his earliest to his latest recordings. His voice is the voice of the plain-spoken sage, of a man who has boiled down the nettles and made tea. (No wonder the producers of The Simpsons hired him to provide the voice of the mystical coyote, encountered by Homer on a peyote trip.) His themes are the heart, the soul, sin, redemption and death. It doesn’t get more fundamental than that. Fortunately, for a man needing to provide 45 minutes of music per album over the course of a fifty year recording career, it doesn’t get more inexhaustible than that either.
• The three albums on American Recordings make me question my own opinionated smugness. Does Sting belong in the slag heap of unredeemable hacks to which I’ve relegated him? If so, why is “I Hung My Head,” a Sting cover on The Man Comes Around so compelling? The same question can be asked of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and, to a lesser extent, of The Eagles’ “Desperado.” If you haven’t heard the album, I know what you’re thinking. Trust me, if I hadn’t heard it and you were telling me that Johnny Cash makes these songs meaningful, I’d tell you to stuff it. My opinion of Sting and The Eagles hasn’t changed. No one thinks they suck more than I do. But there’s an alchemical procedure at work here. Johnny Cash can turn tin into gold. He does it by proving to the listener that all these songs were written for him. He does it by proving, by implication, that every song of heart, soul, sin, redemption and death ever written, was written for him. He does it by proving, by further implication, by having provided the blueprint, by having written and recorded that blueprint over and over again for fifty years, that every song of heart, soul, sin, redemption and death ever written, was written by him. Johnny Cash, on what may be his final albums, has staked a claim to being the embodiment of the central spirit and conscience of every true rock and roll song ever written.
• The Man Comes Around takes a few steps falser than anything else on the American Recordings albums (Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” with Fiona Apple singing back-up, collapses like the Bay Bridge in 1989; Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” fails to rise from the dead). But the cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” is the most moving song I heard in 2002 (and, yes, I’ve heard the new Bright Eyes). Rick Rubin, who had the foresight to sign Johnny Cash in his late years, also had the good sense to produce the albums himself, keeping the arrangements and instrumentation simple, opting to feature Johnny Cash’s voice, singing the fearlessly-selected songs. To our great good fortune, he has eschewed the Daniel Lanois-ization route. On “Hurt” he strips the layers of Reznor production to reveal a primal song of primal emotions – a song which, in retrospect, seems to have been written by, for and about Johnny Cash.
• Johnny Cash has always been preoccupied with death. As a Christian, the end of this life (and the promise of the next) is a scab he can’t avoid picking. On The Man Comes Around, though, the preoccupation has taken on a fierce presence. The Johnny Cash of The Man Comes Around is very near death. The majority of the songs make implicit mention of death. Some, like the title track and “Streets Of Laredo” make specific reference to the singer’s own death. On “We’ll Meet Again,” notably the final track on what sounds as if it is intended to be his last album, Johnny Cash’s family joins him on the chorus to sing what must have felt like a premature wake. To a jaunty, yet funereal dixieland arrangement, they sing “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.”

• When we listen to The Man Comes Around, we are listening to the sound of old, wise, whole-heartedly un-graceful rock and roll. Johnny Cash taps the emotions and subjects of old age which still find their truest expression in rock and roll. In so doing, he does nothing less than justify rock and roll as the most apt expression of all the essential facts and fears of being alive. Let’s see the Rolling Stones do that.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Percepts - Concepts - Precepts, Part Two: Stones, Storms, and Dreams

If part one was to be excused for being sloppy, this entry should be granted leniency for rushing into territory feared by angels.

Part one closes on this note:

"I have held out hope that the positive movements of the last 40 years of art history: Path 2 [i.e., critical] Concetpualism, Institutional Critique, Feminism, Post-Colonialism, Relational Aesthetics, Social Practice, et al., would infect sound practice and bring it into phase with the important art of our times. It would pain me (but not surprise me) if, instead, sound is coaxing the art world into a state of nebulous, naive, navel gazing."

After some constructive feedback from Douglas Kahn and Charles Eppley, I've given the matter some more thought. In particular, Kahn's soon-to-be-published piece on Turrell and Cage (and James Tenney and William Burroughs), encouraged some refinements to my argument. Kahn's essay, "Let Me Hear My Body Talk, My Body Talk," in Relive - Media Art Histories, edited by Sean Cubitt and Paul Thomas (MIT Press, November 2013), reminds us that Turrell's pivotal works, the ones which led him down the path he's still on, occurred under the sway of Cage's example. In fact, Kahn points out, Turrell and Robert Irwin worked in an anechoic chamber as part of the Art and Technology project at LACMA in the late-60s. Check it:

(Kahn's citation is as follows: "Maurice Tuchman, A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967–1971 (New York: Viking, 1971), 127–143; see Craig Adcock, James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 61–84.")

After visiting an anechoic chamber at Harvard, Cage reached the conclusion that "there is no such thing as silence." Turrell, arrived at a parallel conclusion: "There never is no light—the same way you can go into an anechoic chamber that takes away all sound and you find that there never really is silence because you hear yourself. With light it is much the same—we have that contact to the light within, a contact that we often forget about until we have a lucid dream." (Kahn, unpaginated. Citation: "James Turrell, 'Interview by Esa Laaksonen (Blacksburg, VA, 1996),' Architectural Design 68, nos. 7–8 (1997): 76–79;").

Kahn's essay focuses on the body in the work of the four artists discussed: what the body means; the body's role as a producer and/or receiver of signals; the body's status as a component of the subject, as an object, or as an entity that complicates this divide. Following from this, I want to think about how Cage, Turrell, and contemporary sound practice reflect on issues of power, and about if and how the relationship of these practices to power are instantiated in a more fundamental commitment to issues of interiority and exteriority, on the one hand, and the real versus mediated experience, on the other.

Angels, I believe this is where you get off.

So, why am I so troubled by what I referred to as, "Turrell's inchoate spaces of wombessence"? In a nutshell, it's because such spaces, and the experiences they are designed to engender, claim privileged access to a condition of being that is beyond the reach of language. And when I use the blanket term "language'" here, I'm referring to an extended network of signifying practices, including systemizations, structuralisms, images, narratives, analyses, diagrams, thinking and so on. To my mind, there are only two reasons why such experience might be considered desirable. The first is mystical in nature, appealing (or offloading responsibility) to an authority beyond the influence of flesh and blood. The second is political in nature, constructing, and then protecting, a position of authority. These two cases often collapse into one. Those who claim access to the mystical, implicitly claim authority. They possess the key, the ladder, the code, the hot line, the exegetic cipher. But the mystical force to which they alone have access, invariably turns out to "move in mysterious ways." The essence and function of the mystical always exceeds signification. Were such a force to be transparent in its methods and motivations, then we would have the same access as the gatekeeper, and his power would be lost. I am innately skeptical of claims of privileged access or of forces that exceed signification. I believe there's plenty that I don't get. Perhaps there are even things that aren't getable. But I don't trust anyone who tells me that they get it, that I can't, and that they would like to favor me with their gotness. These folks are commonly known as "con-artists."

Returning to plain, old, artists, it seems to me that sound, as a an artistic medium, is particularly susceptible to implying its own gotness. Or perhaps it's that listeners are prone to infer it. Likely, it's a codependent combination of the two. Examples of this cited in my book include: Christina Kubisch's electrical walks, in which the wearer of Kubisch's custom headphones is granted access to the "hidden" sounds of the city; and Francisco López's clandestine live set-up, in which the blindfolded audience sits with their backs to the performer, as he manipulates a panoply of audio technology. More recently, I've raised similar concerns about Doug Aitken's "Sonic Pavilion." Contemporary sound's presumed privileges are often granted by technology. The artist maintains a knowledge (of gear, code, patches) that is not shared with (and sometimes actively withheld from) the audience. More traditionally, sound's privileges have been the product of technical virtuosity and of sound's (or music's) own brand of mysticism: its ineffability. This term attaches to music most intransigently in the title of Vladimir Jankélévitch's book, Music and the Ineffable (La Musique et l'ineffable). "Ineffable," in its Latin etymology, means, literally, "in-utterable." So, again, we're confronted with conditions of being (technological, mechanical, physical, immaterial) that are beyond the reach of language.

My worries about directions of influence, then, are about whether sound will relinquish its claims of ineffability and engage with the truly important and meaningful relations that the gallery arts have engaged over the past forty years (roughly commensurate with Turrell's and Irwin's careers as artists). Just to be clear, what I'm pointing to here are practices that engage institutional critique, gender politics, economics, the AIDS crisis, foreign policy/cultural imperialism, globalism, philosophy, power relations, the distribution of knowledge, etc. And just to be clearer, I'm not suggesting that these engagements need to be explicit or at the level of content. Much of the work I favor merely displays a kind of self awareness about its own relation to these issues and does its best to be transparent with regard to its own status and mechanics in the various structures within which it operates. Instead, I am beginning to suspect that, if there is movement, it is flowing in the opposite direction. The gallery arts, envious of sound's apparent ineffability, move in the direction of sound, toward conditions of being that are beyond the reach of language.

As I've noted, Turrell and Irwin, to name just two examples, have been at this for forty years. So I'm not claiming that their embrace is bandwagon-jumping. Instead, it appears as if critical response may be gravitating toward what I referred to in Part One of this philippic as "ambient conceptualism." The upcoming Turrell exhibitions in Los Angeles, Houston, and New York, are so calculated: three of the four largest cities in the U.S.; West Coast, middle America, and East Coast; north and south; blue states and red state, as to resemble a successful Presidential electoral strategy. The recent New York Times articles: a Magazine cover story on Turrell and an Arts Section front page story on Irwin, speak to the P.R. machine blowing smoke (eerily lit, no doubt, and indigo) up the trouser legs of art critics, museum board members, and private collectors from sea to shining sea.

I'm not inclined to let ambient conceptualism off the hook by calling it something as easily-slipped as "escapist." I think the dangers are far stickier than that. What bothers me about López's performances, about Aitken's pavilion, about Turrell's installations, is their implications - that is to say, their knock-on effects - on the audiences and discourse they attract and simultaneously produce.

I am fond of suggesting to my students that the only irreducible component of works of art, the only thing that all works of art produce, are relations: between the artist and the audience, between the artist and materials, between one audience member and another, between each audience member and the collective audience, between each of these actors and institutions, between the present and history, between one artwork and another, etc. So I believe that a work's effects are real. Art works change things in the world. I'm not talking about toppling governments - not directly anyway. But I do mean that works of art impact the thinking and sensibilities of people and groups of people, and that every human-initiated change in the world begins with a swerve in the thinking and sensibility of a person or a group of people. Art is hardly the only source of such cultural clinamina. But it is a cultural force, like any other.

This brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to the what I started out wanting to think about here, namely: how the relationship of these practices to power are instantiated in a more fundamental commitment to issues of interiority and exteriority, on the one hand, and the real versus mediated experience, on the other. By alluding to Lucretius's clinamen and Epicurean materialism, I open the door to more contemporary materialisms. This is by design. I want to connect the critical-institutional interest in ambient conceptualism to what's come to be known in philosophy as "Speculative Realism." This connection, if I can make it, would suggest that there is something in the water, in the air; something in our times that attracts us to conditions of being that are beyond the reach of language, and that license our surrender to the mysticism of their authority.

Speculative Realism is based largely on two significant objections to the Continental philosophy that precedes it, the movement that sails disparately under the flag of "Poststructuralism." These two objections are directed at: 1) What Quentin Meillassoux has dubbed "correlationism" and/or what Graham Harman calls "philosophies of access," including hardcore idealism and what Meillassoux describes as a skepticism about our ability to know things in the world outside of our instantiated and channelled modes of thinking; and 2) Relational models of ontology or epistemology that claim that entities and/or our knowledge of them require contextualization; that their being and/or their meaning are dependent upon how they relate to other entities. Among the thinkers who are attached to Speculative Realism, there is a spectrum of severity on both these issues and a fair amount of disagreement and debate. But in some respect, all these thinkers are, at the very least, concerned with these problems. The realism in Speculative Realism (SR) contends that entities (or objects) in the world have discrete ontologies and are not dependent on their relations to other entities, least of all on perceiving human minds.

Before I try to build a bridge between these ideas and Turrell, Irwin, and contemporary sound practice, I will first offer a couple of philosophical observations about SR. First, a question about a specific feature of Harman's thought. He is insistent that objects are inevitably "withdrawn" from other objects. That is to say, no object - whether it be a stone, a human being, a storm, a book, or a dream - can fully know (Harman sometimes says ""exhaust") another object. He writes, "Real objects do not encounter each other directly, but only encounter sensual objects, or images of real objects. All contact between real objects is indirect, mediated by sensual reality, and this holds for raindrops and stones no less than for humans." (Harman, "The Current State of Speculative Realism," Seculations IV, New York: Punctum Books, 2013, p. 24.) Again, this is a question more than a refutation, but this sounds suspiciously like a kind of Idealism. Or, if I make more of an effort to square it with existing theories from the movement to which SR opposes itself, is Harman's "withdrawal" so very different from Derridean deferral? Both would hold that the ontology of any entity is perennially suspended. The difference I suppose would be that, for Derrida, this suspension is generated by the faulty machinery of language and representation, while, for Harman, it is an intrinsic property of the objects themselves. It is hard for me to see how these two versions of suspension would land differently in our experience. In other words, who cares if the problem lies in representation or in the objects? In the end, we must contend with the same reality.

Secondly, I see the rejection of relational models as a kind of non-starter. One cannot posit non-relation in a medium of relation such as thought or writing. To think non-relation is to place non-relation into relation. This comes back to a series of conversations about sound I've had over the past eight years with the philosopher, Christoph Cox. (By the way, it seems to me that Christoph arrived at conclusions very similar to those of SR a few years before their inaugural get-together in London in 2007.) I have asked Christoph this question repeatedly over the years: If one holds that objects (or energy, or flow, or flux) in the world are independent of, and indifferent to, signifying systems, then doesn't it follow that the thinker of these thoughts should refrain from expressing them by means of signifying systems? If one holds this view, it seems to me that the only appropriate response to the world is to engage it via other non-signifying objects, or, at least, objects that accept their own perennial suspension without resistance. In other words, a Speculative Realist or a De Landean materialist, should be an artist, a maker of real, material objects. For such a thinker to write texts and give talks, is self-annulling.

Again (or finally), this points back to the artistic practices in question; to James Turrell, Robert Irwin, and the sonic arts. Perhaps, these practices are the only ones that remain true to realist claims. About this art, one can aptly employ that au courant banalism: "It is what it is." Isn't this the nutshell within which SR discovers infinite space? Since I began this entry, the New York Times has published another article, a review by critic Roberta Smith, of the Turrell exhibit(s). Smith describes the main component of the Guggenheim show, a new piece called "Aten Reign," as "an immense, elliptical, nearly hallucinatory play of light and color that makes brilliant use of the museum’s famed rotunda and ocular skylight." After discussing other pieces in New York and at the shows in Houston and L.A., Smith closes her review with this observation: "These visual reveries give the Guggenheim exhibition a surprise ending. As your eyes become alive to both the work’s mysteries and its self-evident simplicity, it is possible to sense a quiet renunciation of “Aten Reign,” with its gorgeous effects and hidden mechanisms. You may not care, but it is there." This, ultimately, is what SR believes. Your caring - inclusive of both "you," the individual subject and "you," the human mind, but also of your caring (a Heideggerean term, but also a camouflaged Kantian notion) - your caring doesn't mean diddly-squat to the universe. Your caring doesn't change anything.

If you believe this, then I suppose SR is the philosophy, and Turrell is the artist, for you. But, perhaps because I am even more committed to the intransigence of the universe than even the most intransigent of the Speculative Realists, I believe the opposite: that caring is all there is and that only caring can change things. This is why I've spent the last few years thrashing at sound's "it-is-what-it-is-ness" like a man clawing at the lid of the coffin from the inside. The "gorgeous effects and hidden mechanisms" of Turrell's installation are precisely the features of too much sound art these days. I suspect that, come August, we may see and hear our fair share of it at MoMA's "Soundings" exhibition. (I'd love to be wrong about this.) It is not enough for the work to "be there." I insist, for reasons that have nothing to do with me or my individual caring, that works of art court our caring. This is why, in my teaching, I ask students to consider the relations their works initiate and engage. One must be attentive to, and responsible for, the conduct of one's relationships. And this goes for "ones" who are humans, and art works, and books, and institutions, and actions, attitudes, behaviors, stones, storms, and dreams.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Percepts - Concepts - Precepts

This is going to be sloppy. But I want to get it down while the iron is still hot. Though, to be honest, I'm not sure what the iron is in this metaphor.

Two days ago Seth Siegelaub died. Yesterday the New York Times Magazine devoted a lengthy article to the James Turrell show opening at the Guggenheim June 21. And today, the New York Times ran a piece on the Robert Irwin show opening June 27 at the Whitney. Add to that, the May 10 Magazine article on Paul McCarthy, and we have a kind of quorum. The artists who came to prominence in the late 1960s are to be eulogized, quickly, before they must be elegized. For the curator Siegelaub, it is now too late. 

But, leaving aside (if it's possible) the market's influence on such matters, what does it mean that Irwin and Turrell, in particular are, at this moment, being gathered so fervently to the breast of the art world? And what does this mean for Sigelaub's long-term legacy? Siegelaub did as much as any other individual to import conceptualism into the art world. Although I realize, almost immediately, that this formula is backwards. What Siegelaub helped to do was to bring the art world into conceptualism. This is true in two senses: 1) Rather than being a branch of inquiry focused on materials and their physical and/or perceptual status, art has been, for the past 40 years, an inquiry into concepts, as embedded and enunciated in materials. Philosophically, the art world now appears as a sub-category of conceptualism in the larger human intellectual project. 2) Pragmatically, the art world has bought so completely into conceptualism that there is hardly an important artist or art work of the past 40 years that does not rely significantly on conceptual scaffolding for justification. (Of course, to say that the art world has "bought into" conceptualism is to acknowledge the commodification of practices that, in some cases, were meant to escape the market. So, to declare conceptualism victorious is not to suggest that it has not been injured on its way to the top.) 

But what was/is conceptualism? Even Lucy Lippard's all-too-famous conception of "dematerialization," does too little to really tell us what conceptual art is. It now appears that dematerialized works took at least two distinct forms; followed two distinct strategies. One path was to reject materiality in favor of the less tangible components of bodily and perceptual experience. This would certainly include the work of Irwin and Turrell, for whom light, space, and time are constituent concerns. A second path eschewed materiality, embracing ideas as the fundamental and productive necessities of a work of art. (I would further argue that this path forks yet again to include, on one side, artists like LeWitt, Bochner, and Kosuth, and on the other side, folks like Graham, Nauman, and Piper.) 

It's not that these distinctions have never been noted before. But, for me, the differences between Path 1 and Path 2 have never before seemed so obvious, nor so important. It wasn't Siegelaub's passing that brought the contrasts into such stark relief. It was the backdrop of another upcoming show in New York, Soundings: A Contemporary Score, opening at MoMA in August.  

In the Fall of 2012, I met with the curator of Soundings, Barbara London, to talk about the show. I told her that I was losing sleep over what the show might be. Granted, this may have been a bit of rhetorical hyperbole, but I was, in fact, concerned. I still am. The so-called, "visual" art world has moved well beyond strictly formal, Kantian-Greenbergian questions; well beyond purely visual, perceptual, or phenomenological issues. The art world embraces a widely-dispersed set of engagements with philosophy; economics; gender; identity; and interpersonal relations at the level of individuals, organizations, corporations, and nation-states. Along the way, art is as likely as not to deal with technology, materiality, language, duration, performance, and cultural critique. These lists are necessarily partial, because art now gives itself permission to address any subject by any strategy that might be productive. In the 1960s, philosophy experienced the apex of what is known as the "linguistic turn," around the same time the visual arts experienced the so-called "conceptual turn," which, if we follow Path 2, licenses a visual art concerned with the complex relations of form, materiality, and image to language and thought. 

The sonic arts, however, have been less expansive. More often than not, works of sound art concern themselves with the material and perceptual properties of sound. There is much talk of "vibrations," and "resonance," and  "immersion," and "affect." I told Barbara London that I was worried that MoMA would patronize sound, allowing it to wallow in its own material output. The rough equivalent in the visual arts is op-art, an approach that does not demand (or merit) serious critical response. If MoMA doesn't consider op-art an important contemporary movement, I asked Barbara, why present sound works which explore similar acoustic territory? Surely, if the (visual) art world is now willing to embrace sound, it should do so according to the same criteria of quality and engagement that it demands of other media. And it's not as if there is no such work. Off the top of my head, I could name a dozen really good artists who make sound do difficult, real-world work: Ultrared, Johannes Kreidler, Christof Migone, Sharon Hayes, Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson, Mattin, Carey Young, Mutlu Cerkez, James Hoff, Anne Walsh and Chris Kubick, Phil Niblock, G. Douglas Barrett, Marina Rosenfeld,... To my knowledge, none of these artists is included in the MoMA show. From the conversations I've had with Barbara London, and from the promotional materials I've seen about Soundings, it seems as if we are in for the show I feared.

The reasons to fear this are many. With any sound exhibition, I hope for works that transcend their own material concerns, that don't rest on an imagined set of laurels granted to sound as the medium par excellence of the ineffable. But when MoMA decides to mount a sound show, the stakes are higher. I fear that a show like this could set the critical agenda for sound for years to come. I fear that artists already (and not yet) working in sound, will mistakenly take the parameters of this show as the parameters of the field. I fear that other exhibiting institutions, funding organization, and the critical-journalistic establishment will similarly mistake this tissue sample as symptomatic of the whole body of work being done in and with sound. 

Before I continue, an important caveat: this exhibition has not yet opened at MoMA. I could be wrong about the kind of work represented. I will return to this post after I've experienced the show and reassess the projected realization of my fears. (I warned you this would be sloppy.) 

But now, back to Turrell and Irwin. Given the attention and considerable resources being paid to their work at major museums in New York this summer, I'm now developing additional fears. Perhaps the embrace of sound as a viable medium in the art world is not simply patronizing. Perhaps the problem is not a dearth of curators well-versed in the practitioners and problematics of the field. Perhaps what's happening is that the art world is turning away from Path 2 conceptualism, the one engaged with language and politics, and turning toward Path 1, the one that discards "hard" materiality, in favor of the "soft" materiality of light, space, and time. If this is the case (and I think it is way too early to tell, but I'm vigilant), then the embrace of sound may be evidence of a turn toward the ineffability to which sound has always claimed privileged access. Perhaps, confronted with avalanching evidence of state and corporate corruption, of the theft and cooptation of private communications and online behavior, of base manipulation of societal values for the gain of a select few, perhaps the art world would prefer to escape to soothing environments of diffuse light and sound. Turrell's inchoate spaces of wombessence seem safe from such encroachments. But it's impossible to play possum. While you're in the soft space of light, the NSA and Facebook are still collecting your data. The money in your bank account is still being used to fund who-knows-what without your knowledge or consent. The government you elected is still imprisoning and targeting people with whom you have no beef. 

Is sound being used to license a move away from linguistic, philosophical, engaged, conceptualism and toward a kind of ambient conceptualism? To my mind, this would signal the "immaterialization," of the art object, rather than the "dematerialization." The former indicates a passive, immersive, amorphous experience; while the latter (Lippard's term) has always meant, for me, a critical response to commodity objects and their attendant fetishisms. I have held out hope that the positive movements of the last 40 years of art history: Path 2 Concetpualism, Institutional Critique, Feminism, Post-Colonialism, Relational Aesthetics, Social Practice, et al., would infect sound practice and bring it into phase with the important art of our times. It would pain me (but not surprise me) if, instead, sound is coaxing the art world into a state of nebulous, naive, navel gazing.

Sloppy indeed. But I wanted to get this "out" sooner than later. That's what this blogging's all about, right? More soon...

Here's Part Two.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Response to Nic Collins

Nic Collins asked a number of his contemporaries about the influence and legacy of the generation of composers and experimental sound makers who came of age in the late-60s and into the 70s. The questions arose in relation to Alvin Lucier's 80th birthday, but also referred to David Behrman, Christian Wolff, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, David Tudor, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, the AMM, the AACM, and the Scratch Orchestra. When Nic shared his synopsis of this discussion on social media, I replied:

Thanks for sharing this, Nic. It's really important to ask these questions and really enlightening to read the thoughts of so many sophisticated practitioners.

I'm a little younger than the folks you polled (but not a lot younger), and I have a different take on these questions. First, I would agree with you that the music of the 60s and 70s did, in fact, represent a paradigm shift. What Alvin, alone, did in that period continues to amaze - for its reinvention from whole cloth, the very notion of what a piece of sonic art could be; for its constant innovation within what now seems to be a very clearly demarcated aesthetic territory; and for his attention to detail and ability to make the right choices (large and small) again and again. The others on your list, to greater and lesser degrees, remained or returned to models more clearly informed by the tradition of music from which they had emerged and in which they had been educated. But still, each of them made great, unprecedented works and, collectively, they represent something genuinely new in the world of producing sound and listening to it as an artistic construction.

Second, I believe we are still in the process of sorting out why the best of that stuff was great and what to do with its innovations. To my mind (and ear), the most important aspects of Alvin's work are not musical or even sonic in any conventional sense of the word. They are conceptual, textual, attitudinal, social, performative, philosophical, and inherently political. The same is true of the best work of Pauline, Steve Reich, Christian Wolff, the Scratch Orchestra, and, I would add, Cornelius Cardew, Luc Ferrari, the Portsmouth Sinfonia, (oh, the list could go on). The practitioners who picked up, for instance, on Alvin's work and tried to work with spaces, or with technologically-aided techniques for generating unintentional sounds, or with acoustic science, may have discovered in Alvin's work a battery for their engines, but they missed out on the real paradigm shift represented by his work and the work of his contemporaries.

On close inspection, the sonic work of this period unsurprisingly, bears resemblances to work in other media at the same time. Alvin's work shares a lot with Sol LeWitt's, Steve Reich's tape work with Dan Graham or Adrian Piper, the Portsmouth Sinfonia with Fluxus. Cardew could be thought of variously as the Hans Haacke or the Bruce Nauman of music. Again, I could go on. But before I'm accused of saying that music walked in the footsteps of innovations in the visual arts, let me clarify that I think these maneuvers happened simultaneously and symbiotically. The world of art and ideas was bucking against its rider and, in unison, they threw him to the ground in a heap. If we see/hear/read/think the music of this period in this way, then the innovations are not about what we're hearing (or at least not strictly and solely about what we're hearing). The shift is about acknowledging new definitions of what an artist or composer does, what an audience does, what a “work” does, and about de- and re-constructed relationships between each of these elements and of the whole construct of the artistic encounter with the rest of the world.

So here, I suspect that David Toop is simply too modest to accept that these moments that he first learned from, and then to which he so decisively contributed, could represent something as grand as a “paradigm shift.” But it surely was. I imagine David is Foucauldian (or maybe Rancièrean) enough to acknowledge that something like an episteme does exist (even if it’s likely always plural). If so, he must also acknowledge that such frameworks are constructed by actions in the world and that art works contribute to this construction.

Third, I would argue that we are now in the midst of another shift. It may be more apparent in the visual arts (again? why?), where practice has turned away from the Modernist vs. Postmodernist debates and to an engagement with real-world institutions and populations. So-called “relational aesthetics” and “social practice” operate within the parameters of a set of concerns that are simply not accounted for in the debates of Greenberg-Fried v. Krauss-Foster. Again, before I’m misconstrued, I’m not championing this work unproblematically. I’m merely observing that the ground has shifted. I believe that something similar is happening in the sonic arts. It’s harder to make out amidst the confusion of categories and intentions and, I think, due to the inherent conservatism of the musical establishment (funding organizations, venues, patrons, journalists, and the academy). But I hear an engagement that not only echoes what’s happening in the visual arts, but one that leverages the unique capacities of sound in its musical, verbal, technological, and social manifestations. I’m thinking of the work of Ultra-red, Johannes Kreidler, Christof Migone, Carey Young, Jarrod Fowler, Sharon Hayes, Janet Cardiff, James Hoff, Marina Rosenfeld, Nina Katchadourian, Ragnar Kjartansson, and others.

Maybe the upshot is that, as historical creatures, it’s difficult for us to participate in more than one paradigm shift. I mean, accepting that “everything’s changed” is difficult enough to do once. To do it twice threatens to enact the Nietzschean thought that nothing is true and everything (and anything) is permitted. Of course, if that’s true, it’s false. And you know where that leaves us…