Saturday, January 30, 2016


William Carlos Williams

It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
then took her box
and set fire to it

in the backyard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.


Walter Benjamin

It could happen to someone looking back over his life that he realized that almost all the deeper obligations he had endured in its course originated in people who everyone agreed had the traits of a “destructive character.” He would stumble on this fact one day, perhaps by chance, and the heavier the shock dealt to him, the better his chances of representing the destructive character.

The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.

The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates, because it clears away the traces of our own age; it cheers, because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed a rooting out, out of his own condition. Really, only the insight into how radically the world is simplified when tested for its worthiness for destruction leads to such an Apollonian image of the destroyer. This is the great bond embracing and unifying all that exists. It is a sight that affords the destructive character a spectacle of deepest harmony.
The destructive character is always blithely at work. It is Nature that dictates his tempo, indirectly at least, for he must forestall her. Otherwise she will take over the destruction herself.
The destructive character sees no image hovering before him. He has few needs, and the least of them is to know what will replace what has been destroyed. First of all, for a moment at least, empty space – the place where thing stood or the victim lived. Someone is sure to be found who needs this space without occupying it.
The destructive character does his work; the only work he avoids is creative. Just as the creator seeks solitude, the destroyer must be constantly surrounded by people, witnesses to his efficacy.
The destructive character is a signal. Just a trigonometric sign is exposed on all sides to the wind, so he is exposed to idle talk. To protect him from it is pointless.
The destructive character has no interest in being understood. Attempts in this direction he regards as superficial. Being misunderstood cannot harm him. On the contrary, he provokes it, just as oracles, those destructive institutions of the state, provoked it. The most petty bourgeois of all phenomena, gossip, comes about only because people do not wish to be misunderstood. The destructive character tolerates misunderstanding; he does not promote gossip.
The destructive character is the enemy of the étui-man. The étui-man looks for comfort, and the case is its quintessence. The inside of the case is the velvet-lined trace that he has imprinted on the world. The destructive character obliterates even the traces of destruction.
The destructive character stands in the front line of traditionalists. Some people pass things down to posterity, by making them untouchable and thus conserving them; others pass on situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them. The latter are called the destructive.
The destructive character has the consciousness of historical man, whose deepest emotion is an insuperable mistrust of the course of things and a readiness at all times to recognize that everything can go wrong. Therefore, the destructive character is reliability itself.
The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. Because he sees ways everywhere, he always stands at a crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists he reduces to rubble – not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.
The destructive character lives from the feeling not that life is worthing living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.

Friday, January 29, 2016

"No ideas but in things"

In a November 13, 2015 Momus post editor Sky Goodden asks Liz Magor questions, and Liz responds “simply” and “with uncanny clarity,” according to Sky, but with dollops of mystery and intrigue. Mystery because I am curious to know how Liz arrives at what she says; intrigue because it is more than that -- more than just wanting to know more.

I Googled “Liz Magor” and “William Carlos Williams”, but nothing came up. What was I thinking? I was thinking of Williams’s line from the 1927 version of his multi-volume poem, Paterson, “No ideas but in things” and I wonder if Liz has ever used it.

Liz is disparaging of ideas. Of them she says, “Ideas are a dime a dozen.” But that can't be what she means. Concepts maybe – Conceptual Art -- but I am not buying ideas. Was it not her idea to “flip” her desire for that which she doesn’t have in order to “idolize” that which she does -- like the chair she was sitting on when the idea first came to her? This is what I find so intriguing.

(photo by Glenn Baglo)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Walk on By (1964)

A lip-synched performance that features some great staging: fifteen chairs in support of Dionne Warwick's animation of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Walk On By" (1964).

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Of Walking In Ice

About two years ago this spring I was in The People's Co-op Bookstore dropping off some used books when I noticed on the shelf behind the front desk the 1980 Tanam edition of Werner Herzog's 1978 book Of Walking In Ice, a lyric diary of the author/filmmaker's November 23 -- December 14, 1974 walk from Munich to Paris to visit his sick friend and fellow filmmaker Lotte Eisner.

Although I had wanted this book since forever, I was not prepared to pay $80 for it, nor even the $65 discounted price I was offered (I serve on the bookstore's board). The only way I would pay so dearly for this book would be to buy it so it could be scanned and reprinted by an outfit like Kay Higgins and Kathy Slade's Publication Studio Vancouver. But when I contacted Tanam, to ask permission to do a "people's reprint", the publisher told me he was already considering a reprint, and that maybe this was the incentive he needed. Then, about a year later, University of Minnesota Press issued their version -- the one I now hold in my hand.

Not sure what it is about books like this and Chatwin's In Patagonia (1978) that hold me like they do. What do these books have in common? Well, for starters, both began as walks recorded in notebooks…

People's Co-op Bookstore is currently closed due to fire. But if you are interested in Of Walking In Ice, Pulp Fiction Books or The Paper Hound might have some in stock. If not, they will surely order it for you.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


A slow wet morning. I should stop here, lie down, have a nap. But no! Must … push … on -- despite the heaviness in my legs and eyes.

This morning I walked the marshy bowl bordered by Fraser Street, 16th Avenue, King Edward Boulevard and Prince Edward Street. Everything that fell from the sky last night – everything that was not absorbed into the earth – had pooled up in the strangest places – places one does not normally notice under normal conditions.

A few years back a friend who lives in the area told me how a corner bungalow at 18th and Prince Edward was razed to make way for a two-storey house whose foundation required piles over a hundred feet long because most of the block is bogland.

A bog. Like the one where I grew up, an area we called PW Bush because it bordered Prince of Wales High School and because it was a bushy bog -- at least until the early 1970s, when developers turned it into the Arbutus Village shopping mall.

So much goes into and comes out of bogs. When I was at university, my archaeology professor told us about Tollund Man, a 4th century Dane who was found in a peat bog in Jutland -- perfectly preserved! His last meal, based on the undigested contents of his stomach, has been described as "a kind of porridge."

Monday, January 25, 2016

"The wind is in from Africa…"

Recently I received a link to a Wall Street Journal article about the man who inspired the Joni Mitchell song "Carey"(1971). This is a song I have lived with for most of my life and whose lyrics, like the last sentence in the second-to-last paragraph of Willa Cather's "Paul's Case; a Study in Temperament" (1905), have left an indelible impression on my retinae. What a shock it was to read about Mitchell's muse, a man who differed so much from the one I imagined.

The Carey that I imagined was not someone the narrator was romantically involved with, but an older, avuncular type; a Daddy Warbucks to a grown-up Orphan Annie; or if not older, then more refined. But then it was never the people who drew me to this song, but its geographical descriptions and their relationship to the music that animated the song's landscapes (the wind is in from Africathe night is a starry dome…).

So how is it that Mitchell and her muse hooked up? While re-reading the article it occurred to me that this man displays behaviours commonly associated with Asperger's Syndrome, a difficult, somewhat anti-social condition -- but not for a narcissist like Mitchell. So it is no wonder these two found each other, and as a result we have one of Mitchell's catchiest songs.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Michel Tournier

I am not "on" Twitter, but there are a half-dozen tweeters whose tweets I look at to keep myself apprised of our cultural obsessions. Sometimes it is simply the form itself.

Aaron Peck is a tweeter whose tweets I look at. Reading Aaron's tweets can feel a little like watching a teenager at a mirror trying on an ascot for the first time.

Aaron often tweets about where he is ("Ah, Brussles [sic] and your spaghetti bolognese"), what he is reading ("Even after reading Javier Marias and Juan Benet, this Lydie Salvayre makes me realize how little I know or recall of the Spanish Civil War") and the passing of those important to him ("And now Hilla Becher. Rest in peace.").

Aaron's most recent death tweet reads: "Although it happened a few days ago, I just found out that Michel Tournier died. Sad news."(January 21)

Sad news indeed.

Like Günter Grass and W. G. Sebald, Tournier was among the last writers to remind us that Europe was ravaged by a Second World War whose consequences are still felt today. And while I appreciate their books and their attention to history, it is their patriarchal Old Man Europe tone that I find annoying, particularly in Sebald's Austerlitz (2001).

In an unattributed Independent review of Barbara Bray's 1972 translation of Tournier's 1970 novel The Erl-King (posted in 2014), the reviewer has this to say of the novel's main character:

"His overwhelming need to reclaim a lost innocence and sense of identity increasingly comes to dominate his adult life. He sees signs everywhere but cannot always interpret them."

This is consistent with my memory of the book, where the protagonist is something of a stand-in for Europe -- or at least a segment of it.

Later, after his capture by the Nazi's and his employment under Reichsmarscall Hermann Göring:

"He struggles to find a sense of self, identifying more often with beast than his fellow man, and in his search for clarity of purpose he is often met with suspicion.

It is here, ultimately, that The Erl-King comes into his own: by unravelling the paradox of Nazism's attraction to, yet final perversion of, purity, nature and the preciousness of life itself."

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Lives Outlived

In yesterday's post, Ken Lum cites Walter Benjamin, and how a life can be outlived.

What is it to outlive one's life?

Among those old enough, there are occasions where, in the course of a conversation, we pause on what was once possible, but like a building that no longer stands, is gone, lost, extinct.

A common lost narrative is one that many first-born Baby Boomers rebelled against in their youth: that you finish school, get a job, then retire from it 40 years later, with a pension to keep you warm, dry and well-fed.

Who among us in the unliveable city of Vancouver would not welcome that security today? Not that narrative, but that security? Or if not that narrative, then that narrative with revisions?

Even through the deregulatory 1980s it was, at least for me (b. 1962), unimaginable that those of us born during the Baby Boom years would finish our working lives without a pension. More so today is a reality that has the promise of that pension, once activated, as empty as Al Capone's vault.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dream Kitsch

The most recent issue of Canadian Art magazine features an article by artist Ken Lum, in which he talks about the difference between Canada and the United States. Lum left Vancouver five years ago to take a teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania.

My thinking about art and life comes largely out of growing up in a quiet but skittish Vancouver, which has since transmogrified into something I barely recognize as my own. An immense influx of capital has transformed the city into a spectacle that engenders in its visitors feelings akin to the discovery of the secret of poetry, unaware that it is misrecognition of depth for surfaces. Vancouver has become adorned in what Walter Benjamin called dream kitsch, “the last mask of the banal, the one with which we adorn ourselves, in dream and conversation, so as to take in the energies of an outlived world of things.” It is not just things that become outlived but the people for whom the city is no longer a possibility.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A small room inside a bay window. A single bed, a table and chair, and a sink. I could manage something larger, with more conveniences, but I could never match the view.

In "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century" (1935), Walter Benjamin makes much of the "phantasmagoria" and the "dream." Here are two sentences I keep cycling back to:

Ambiguity is the pictorial image of dialectics, the law of dialectics seen at a standstill. This standstill is utopia and the dialectic image therefore a dream image.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"Peaceful, Easy Feeling" (1972)

I was never much of an Eagles fan growing up. But since the band was popular when I was looking to popular music for clues about the world I was growing up in, their popularity told me something about what people enjoyed listening to when listening to popular music.

The passing of Eagle Glenn Frey has me hearing snippets of Eagles' songs every time I start up my car or turn on the radio. The song most news agencies are playing is "Peaceful, Easy Feeling"(1972), and in hearing its first lines (I like the way your sparkling earrings lay/ Against your skin, it's so brown) I am reminded that Tiziana La Melia has a performance at the CAG this January 26, 7PM that "enacts a professional photo shoot for a set of earrings designed by the artist."

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Genre For Our Times?

Has the passing of David Bowie marked an upward surge in celebrity deaths, or is it the relevance of the recently dead (at least to me) that makes it seem like everyone is dying?

After looking at a half dozen or so life expectancy charts, it seems we should expect an increase in mortality for those born at the onset of the postwar Baby Boom (1946-1966), particularly those born during the preceding war years (1939-1945), for it is they who produced much of the literature, music, films and visual art that defined the Baby Boom generation.

Last week I was at a café when the person beside me left behind a perfectly reassembled copy of the Globe and Mail. It had been ages since I handled a hard copy newspaper, so I began to scan its headlines, sometimes its articles, with glee. But only when I came to the feature obituary did I read it in its entirety, and only then did it occur to me that the reason I gave up my Globe and Mail subscription ten years ago was because the feature obituary was the only thing I was reading.

Will an increase in celebrity deaths, our ongoing fascination with celebrity and its portraiture (both written and pictured), our ever-shrinking attention span and our hysterical need for that slammed door known as “closure”, result in the ascendency of the obituary genre?  Can we expect to see a newspaper forsake local, provincial, national and international news to devote itself entirely to the lives of the freshly dead? I wonder.

In the meantime, for those interested in a “book of the dead”, allow me to suggest not a newspaper but a poetry collection. Spoon River Anthology (1915) by Edgar Lee Masters is not so much a gathering of obituaries in free verse but stories of past lives as told by those who lived them. Something else to keep in mind: Spoon River was for many years one of the few textbooks that most American public school educators could agree upon. So if you wonder where our interest in the death portrait originated, it might well be rooted in the everyday lives of those buried in the fictional town of Spoon River.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"… the fan of memory …"

Again and again I return to the writings of Walter Benjamin. Though these returns usually begin in the middle of his books, this time I begin with the first piece in Reflections -- "Berlin Chronicle".

On Proust, Benjamin writes:

He who has once begun to open the fan of memory never comes to the end of its segments; no image satisfies him, for he has seen how it can be unfolded, and only in its folds does the truth reside; that image, that taste, that touch for whose sake all this has been unfurled and dissected; and now remembrance advances from small to smallest details, from the smallest to the infinitesimal, while that which it encounters in these microcosms grows ever mightier.

So much going on in that sentence, from the hard science of physics to the creamy metaphors of Deleueze, Kristeva and Irigaray (fold), and those of Althusser and Levinas (encounter). One might even see an analogue with the internet. Just replace the "fan of memory" with "porn site".

Saturday, January 16, 2016

"… the prides of detachment …"

Robson relates what Mailer once said of Vidal the writer: that "his narcissistic explorations … do not go deep enough into himself, and so end up as gestures and postures"; that he "lacks the wound" required of all great writers; but that he was hopeful Vidal would "turn the prides of detachment into new perception." Vidal's friend Anaïs Nin seemed to concur, for after she read Vidal's first novel, Williwaw (1946), she wrote, "I am startled by the muted tone, the cool detached words."

Setting aside this business of "the wound" (which I am sure Vidal possessed, but, unlike Mailer, did not wear on his sleeve), and what Barthes had to say about the author in relation to the text, I am interested in detachment and what it is capable of when it comes to the production of literature. And this of course led me back to my library, to focus on more recent books by younger writers who share traits similar to those ascribed to Vidal, and whose own writing is consistent with these traits. What I found in fact were writers whose books I had unconsciously or otherwise shelved in the neighbourhoods of their stylistic imitatees -- neighbourhoods established by older writers like Bartheleme, Coetzee, Perec and Sebald.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Vidal and Mailer

Despite continuing with the Wild Rose Cleanse and its lunch bucket of herbal laxatives, I have yet to finish Robson's essay (see yesterday's post), returning instead to the writings of Vidal and Mailer, of which I have one book each.

Robson tells us that Vidal's strong suit is his non-fiction, but the book I have is his best-known: the novel Myra Breckinridge (1968). As for Mailer, who is known for his fiction, I believe his most enduring book will be the one in my library, his heavily researched "true life novel" The Executioner's Song (1979).

After re-reading the first twenty pages of Myra, I gave up and took the book not to the shelf where it sat all these years but to the out-box I keep in my laundry room. Which is a shame (at least symbolically) because Myra is, according to the encyclopedia, "the first instance of a novel in which the main character undergoes a clinical sex change," and the "sex change" is big news now that, as the coffee roaster down the street keeps telling me, "Trans is the new Gay." (But then, sincerity is the new satire, so who [under 45] would not look down on a book that treats its subject as such, particularly a book as stiffly written as Myra?)

As for The Executioner's Song, and in keeping with the ongoing thematic re-arrangement of my library, I have moved it from the "M"s to its new home -- a neighbourhood that includes Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) and Lynn Crosbie's Paul's Case (1997).

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Gore Vidal

Sloshing through the books and magazines that litter my home, the October 26, 2015 New Yorker still in the bathroom. Twice now I have read Nicholas Schmidle's feature on a young Syrian refugee -- then suddenly, as if the magazine had a secret compartment, Leo Robson's expanded review of Jay Parini's Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal (2015), with its playful title "Delusions of Candour", but an even better subtitle, "How will we remember Gore Vidal?"

Good question.

What I remember of Gore Vidal begins with my introduction to him in People magazine in the mid-1970s. The accompanying black-and-white picture showed Vidal and Norman Mailer dressed in 1950s style suits glaring at each other from opposite sides of Kitty Carlisle's couch. The article described how, after years of baiting each other, the two came to blows, with Vidal calling Mailer a "dirty little Jew" and Mailer responding with something only slightly less injurious. From then on I made it my business to know who these men were and what they meant to America.

Here is a paragraph from Robson's article:

Yet it would be hard to imagine a less intimate biography. Parini loved spending time with the wordly, woundless Vidal, and he seemed eager to perpetuate Vidal's myths about himself. In a letter from the late forties, Vidal wrote that psychoanalysis is "quite a frightening experience," and that "it's not a pleasant thing to see oneself." But when Vidal tells Parini that his experience of therapy failed because "I have no unconscious," the biographer doesn't pause to comment.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Critique of Judgement

"Something is beautiful if it gives pleasure without interest," says Kant in his Critique of Judgement (1790).

Are we interested? Not if we believe that beauty -- the perception of beauty -- is in the eye of the beholder.

So many of the world's problems begin and end with objective notions of anything, let alone beauty.

I am interested in what Marxists have to say about "objective material conditions" existing independent of our consciousness.

The image above is a reproduction of a 6" x 6" drawing by Ryan Heshka. It is the most fucked up thing I have seen this week.

Monday, January 11, 2016

No Questions

The Crowd Pleasers
39" x 31"
Acrylic on Canvas
David Bowie: New Afro/Pagan and Work 1975-1995
Exhibition: The Gallery, 28 Cork Street, London, England, April 18-29, 1995

A viking funeral, like the closing scene in The Vikings (1958).

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Three Questions

What is it?

It is an 81.9 cm x 121.3 cm realist painting by Andrew Wyeth, entitled Christina's World (1948).

How is it made?

It is made of tempura on gessoed panel.

What does it mean/How is it relevant?

The strength of this painting lies in its narrative(s). Could it have been made with a camera, an actor and a rural landscape? I would say only insofar as its actor was able to pose in a way that would be difficult to achieve by someone who is able-bodied; for the person in this picture is not able-bodied but distorted by illness or injury, and this illness or injury infects what I think this person is yearning for (if she is yearning at all).

The feeling I get from this representation is not desire but its more complex form, a mix of desire and disgust, further complicated by necessity. Because of the subject's physical condition, what she wants might include more than a) the house (a home); b) the person inside this house (a potential friend, a potential lover); or c) something that the person in this house might or might not be aware of. If it is not a salve the subject is seeking, then it might be a remedy or a cure.

Why this painting is relevant is not because it allows for a complex meditation on desire but because of its potential to reflect our present attitudes toward illness: that the desires of those with illnesses are different from those who do not suffer from them. Why the subject of this painting should be judged differently from those who are able-bodied is the same as asking, Why is it that every time someone lights a cigarette in a movie, we wonder if a) that person is of a questionable character; b) the cigarette will be used to torture the person sitting opposite; or c) the house is about to burn down?

Saturday, January 9, 2016


who am I to know this writing for?

a waves its blackened screech

palms at the heels as wings go

frozen in an instance of falling

on the page to feed upon its ink

readings taken and made

pattern of consumption its own

mess the text suggests what’s left

potential for additional subtractions

not the story of a bird but its form

a cold grey windowlessness

a condition an atmosphere

measures paced with fence posts

barbs notes to sing along with

the sun in love our bouncing ball

automotive hymn book shifts

a choir wakes to its refrain

who am I to know this singing for?

if not to keep this bird aloft

my hands below the landscaped page

Friday, January 8, 2016

A small room inside a bay window. A single bed, a table and chair, and a sink. I could manage something larger, with more conveniences, but I could never match the view.

"The history of the idea of culture," writes Raymond Williams at the beginning of the concluding chapter of his Culture and Society 1780-1950, "is a record of our reactions, in thought and feeling, to the changed conditions of our common life."

In the margin beside it, in my twenty-something handwriting:

"Even before getting to culture we must consider the idea of Culture as something akin to the minute hand of history."

An inch or so later:

"Not Culture unto itself, reified and timeless, but something forever changing, through conflict."

The dialectical Williams, the Marxist Williams...

Who did I think I was? Who was I? Am I still a participant in that pattern of thought?

As I look over my thirty-year-old undergraduate transcript (the abbreviated course names windows into the classrooms that housed them) it occurs to me that my university education was an unintended blend of grand theory and post-structuralism, material conflict and political economic signification, Marx and Foucault.

I appreciated the knife-edge that is Marxism, its language and its methodology; but anytime it became too rigid, too exclusive, too deterministic, I would think to myself, It is just another discourse -- one amongst many.

From that, a kind of pluralism, or a cultural relativism, as it came to be called by its critics -- and then the Berlin Wall came down and globalism turned from a positive word (for example, how Jeff Wall uses it in his "Four Essays on Ken Lum", in Ken Lum [Winnipeg/Rotterdam: WAG/Witte de With, 1990]) to a negative (globalization), a force that all cultures are subject to -- under a single mode of production.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Breakaways

"Hey Joe" is a murder ballad written by Billy Roberts in the early 1960s and popularized by Jimi Hendrix in the mid-60s.

Like Pete Tosh's performance from yesterday's post ("Don't Look Back" was written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White in 1965), "Hey Joe" includes a backing vocal track. Unlike yesterday's post, the names of its backing vocalists are readily available. They are Vicki Brown, Jean Hawker and Margot Newman (aka The Breakaways).

When I first heard "Hey Joe", what I heard more than its amazing guitar work and lead vocal, more than its bass (Noel Redding) and drums (Mitch Mitchell), was the voice (via the haunting backing vocals) of the nameless "woman" who is repeatedly shot over the course of its telling. More recently, the voices of those who go uncredited on performances like Tosh's.

The last time I read the lyrics to "Hey Joe", I thought of a song Herald Nix often performed in his electric sets. Not a murder ballad but a song where one man encounters another man, and asks that man a question. An excerpt of this song (whose name I don't know) can be found here (0:00-2:12).

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Gender Über Alles?

A promotional video for Pete Tosh's 1978 album Bush Doctor, featuring an enthusiastic Mick Jagger, but not the women singing background vocals, none of whom are credited on the album's Wiki entry.

Monday, January 4, 2016


Who cares what her biological parents have to say?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Identity Politics

Terence Dick is the editor of Akimblog and a teacher of philosophy and creative writing at a high school in Southern Ontario. His most recent post is a "hit list" of five topics. The first one is entitled  "National Politics"; the second one, "Identity Politics".

Here is "Identity Politics":

For the past couple years I’ve been telling my more conservative Grade 12 students that the people I went to university with in the late eighties/early nineties at the heyday of identity politics who then went on to pursue careers in academia were finally getting tenure and would soon be their professors. This was my way of warning them that they needed to develop some self-awareness or, in the parlance of today, “check their privilege”. I recently ran into one who was back in town for American Thanksgiving and he confirmed that university was crazy liberal. The proliferation of Black Lives Matter demonstrations on campus and the mainstream popularity of books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonautsstrike me as evidence of a cresting wave of ethical activism that isn’t concerned with globalization or wealth disparity or the environmental crisis, but about individual and cultural identity. This discourse didn’t disappear in the years since I was an undergrad, but (for some very obvious reasons particularly as it relates to race in the US) it is now far higher on the radar and finding mainstream outlets through popular culture.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A Conversation Between Andrew Berardini and Chris Kraus *

Andrew: Why would you even want to?

Chris: Throughout my twenties I lived in New York and never once thought about applying to art school. Art school, at the time, seemed to be for people who weren't really intending to become artists. I knew all the artists. I even studied with some. But the tuition—sometimes paid for with money, more often intangibly—never passed through an institution. I paid with a loyalty that was often betrayed. But this is normal.

Andrew: We want to be makers, not bureaucrats or lecturers. But after a dozen years of making, maybe you care about the continuity of knowledge and experience; you want to give of yourself, and maybe make space for others to find their voices, as you did.  Artists founded art schools for these same reasons.

Chris: My real education took place in my apartment. Convinced that to be an artist I'd need lots of free time, I did occasional temp work supplemented by low-level scams and some topless dancing. This gave me lots of free time, but at the time, I didn't know what to do with it. Sometimes I slept twelve hours a day. I remember looking in the mirror at my too-rested face and realizing the hardest thing I'd have to learn was how to make my own program, how to inhabit unstructured time without getting lost in it. I don't know if you learn this in grad school.

Andrew: There are plenty of examples out there, from fly-by-night, for-profit scoundrels, to august, ivy-draped centuries-old institutions. Why not just join one of them rather than go through the trouble of starting something new?

Chris: When, in my late twenties, I began living with a tenured professor at Columbia University, the question of art school, or other graduate school, became tabled. His grad students became my close friends. Before leaving New Zealand, in my late teens I'd unsuccessfully applied to Columbia's graduate program in journalism. In the end, I attended the school by osmosis.

Andrew: Unfortunately, the current model for art school sucks.

Chris: It's only at times when I want to escape from my life that I regret not going to art school.

Andrew: Let us count the ways, easily summed in dollars.

Chris: The bios of writers whose careers I envy usually contain the names of the prestigious MFA programs they attended. If I'd gone to the right MFA program, I'd have an agent! I wouldn't be virtually self-published by Semiotexte, the independent press where I'm a co-editor. My writing would be reviewed in serious, adult publications. But in order for these things to happen, I'd have had to write different writing.

Andrew: In Southern California, the cost of an MFA ranges from $31,000 at UCLA, a public university, to just under $79,000 at Art Center, a private school. This does not include accommodation, food, materials, books, etc. It only includes tuition.

Chris: As it is, my writing is read mostly within the art world—a field in which virtually everyone attends an MFA program. And I try not to criticize this. Perhaps for the better, grad school has taken the place of my generation's aimless experience.

Andrew: I owe around $50,000 for my MFA degree in writing from CalArts. This is an albatross around my neck. I tell everyone who asks not to do it, not to go into debt, but I didn’t really have an alternative to take, myself, and too few to give others now. It’s time we had more.

Chris: I've noticed a trend among students in certain liberal arts undergrad schools to move to New York or Berlin or L.A. after Grinnell or Reed College or Swarthmore. Not applying to grad school or art school is very neo-old school. And this is exciting. What will be even more exciting is if the cultural life of these cities approaches a point where alumni of less elite schools can embrace the same mixture of deep disillusion and confidence.

 Andrew: For many decades, our entire community in Southern California was formed and sustained through art schools. The costs of education in the last forty years went from free at public schools to extortionary across the board. CalArts, a vanguard model for many years, now has its faculty unionizing to fight against the creeping corporatization of the school, though one does not expect this to lower the tuition and fees of over $90,000 for a two-year MFA. The University of Southern California, which had one of the best art programs in the country, appointed a dean to dismantle it and move the institution towards a feeder school for “creative industries” under a rubric set by Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. USC tenured professor Frances Stark, with an upcoming retrospective at the Hammer Museum, quit in protest from the changes. The destruction of the USC graduate art program is devastating, even more tragic as for some years it offered full-tuition for most of its students. The era of art schools in Los Angeles is fading. I talk about where I live specifically but this is happening all over.

Chris: Art and commerce have always been two sides of the same coin and to oppose them would be false. Instead, I want to talk about a shift that has taken place during the past ten years in how art objects reach the market, how they're defined and how we read them.

Andrew: Maybe the whole university-industrial complex in the US is busted. When I read that Elizabeth Holmes, the 30-year-old female billionaire who revolutionized blood-testing, decided to drop out of Stanford and take her school money to successfully develop her idea, it gave me pause. Or that billionaire entrepreneur and libertarian objectivist Peter Thiel is encouraging brilliant students to drop out and take his grants instead; I think deeply about the system we’ve wrought.

Chris: The professionalization of art production—congruent with specialization in other postcapitalist industries—has meant that the only art that will ever reach the market now is art that's produced by graduates of art schools. The life of the artist matters very little. What life? The lives of successful younger artists are practically identical. There's very little margin in the contemporary art world for fucking up, accidents, or unforeseen surprises. In the business world, lapses in employment history automatically eliminate middle managers, IT specialists, and lawyers from the fast track. Similarly, the successful artist goes to college after high school, gets an undergraduate degree and then enrolls in a high-profile MFA studio art program. Upon completing this degree, the artist gets a gallery and sets up a studio.

Andrew: Our current system, a medieval guild-cum-unitary corporation accompanied by debt culture, needs to end for artists. My government in California built one of the best university systems in the world only to have its funding chipped away, along with the promise of free universal higher-education. Barring a dramatic shift in government policy, it’s time to change this ourselves.

Chris: Equal opportunity for white and Asian artists of both genders has ushered in a massive uniformity. It's best, of course, for the artist to be heterosexual and better to be monogamously settled in a couple. This guards against messy leaks of subjectivity that might compromise the work and throw it back into the realm of the ‘abject,' which, as we all supposedly agree, was a 1980s excess that has long since been discredited. If imagery of a sexual subculture is to be deployed, as in the work of Art Center graduate Dean Sameshima, it's important that any undercurrents of desire be cooled off and distanced by conflating homoerotic porn with the consumer-beauty-porn of fashion ads. Through this conflation, the viewer is led into that most desired state of neo-corporate neo-Conceptualism: the empty space of ambiguity, which is completely different from the messy space of contradiction. "Ambiguity," wrote Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza, seeing it all two hundred years ago, "is the kingdom of the night."

Andrew: For the past six years, I’ve been teaching at the Mountain School of Arts, an artist-run school based in Los Angeles. All the faculty, staff, and lecturers, including myself, work for free, and none of the students pay to attend. Sometimes we are even able to find gratis accommodations for the students. Everyone participating – speakers, teachers, and students – does so as an act of openness and generosity. Perhaps I am lucky enough to afford this generosity, though not everyone can. And while this experience has allowed me to give back, its attendant sense of precarity is getting to me. I long for a third option that is stable and sustainable.

Chris: The critics Dave Hickey, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, and David Pagel, in their championing of ‘beauty,’ as if it were opposed to ‘criticality,’ are the new police of anti-meaning. During the mid-1990s and beyond, ‘criticality’ (a code word for the unschooled, the race- and gender-conscious, those driven to make art that references conditions in the social world, instead of other art) became the evil empire that lurked outside the Los Angeles art world. All three writers rail against the influence of ‘academe,' with its emphasis on ‘history,’ upon contemporary art production. Since all three are (or have been) themselves employed within the art departments of academic institutions (the University of Nevada, Art Center College of Design, and Claremont College, respectively), I think they're referring, more specifically, to the pernicious hybrid discipline known as ‘cultural studies’ that since the 1970s has used feminism, historiography, queer, and post-colonial theories as lenses through which to view one's own experience of the world.

Andrew: We need to pass on knowledge and give space to create, without hobbling graduates with massive debt.

Chris: When collectors pay ten thousand dollars for a David Korty landscape, they aren't purchasing a pleasant watercolor of a night sky wrapped around a hill. Other, more naive artists have done these painting more consistently, and may have even done them ‘better.’ What collectors are acquiring is an attitude, a gesture that Korty manifests through his anachronistic choice of subject matter. The real ‘meaning’ of the work has very little to do with the images depicted in his paintings—night skies wrapped around a hill—or their execution. Rather, the ‘meaning’ (and the value) of the work lies in the fact that Korty, a recent graduate of UCLA's MFA art program, would defiantly loop backwards to tradition by rendering something as anachronistic as a landscape in the quaint medium of watercolor. After all, he has all of art history's image-bank to choose from.

Andrew: So let’s stop that and do something else.

Chris: Similarly, when Art Center MA graduate Andy Alexander spray paints the words "Fuck the Police" on the corridor walls of his installation, I Long For The Long Arm Of The Law, the piece is not relegated to the realm of the ‘political.’ ‘Political’ artworks, after all, are "the most hopelessly self-referential of all art forms… Where the work of art as such… exists to manufacture ambiguity, the political one seeks to resolve it." [Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beyond Piety: Critical Essays on the Visual Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.] Instead, he is praised in a review by Peter Lunenfeld published in Artext for his "subtle aestheticism," which enacts "a dilation and contraction between psychological and social domains."

Andrew: Though there have been many attempts by artists to deal with the current debacle in education — most of them admirable, from New York Arts Practicum and The Public School in the US to SOMA in Mexico or Islington Mill Art Academy in Britain — the most serious and sustainable alternative model in the US is the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP). Founded by Ron Clark in 1965, the Whitney ISP offers inexpensive education from some of our brightest artists, scholars, critics, and curators. Its full price is $1,800 a year, an amount even I could have pulled together working a part-time job (though even this can also be subsidized based on need). They also do something that we at Mountain School can’t do, help organize for student visas. Sustained by modest tuition and the usual fundraising, the Whitney ISP falls in between the purely volunteer-run school and the excruciating debt machines.

Chris: Andy Alexander is an intelligent and enthusiastic younger artist. His dad was once the mayor of Beverly Hills. Interviewed by Andrew Hultkrans in the notorious "Surf and Turf" article that proclaimed the dominance of Southern California art schools (Artforum, Summer 1998), Alexander expresses his enthusiasm for art school as a place that "teaches you certain ways of looking at things, a way of being critical about culture that is incredibly imperative, especially right now." Like most young artists in these programs, Alexander maintains a certain optimism about art: that it might be a chance to do something good in the world.

Andrew: There is one functional long-lasting alternative now, but there should be many, each defined by the spirit of the artists that teach there, and the needs of its community. Though I’m suspicious of how museums fit into power in the US (through their sticky relationships to the wealthy, mainly), museums are educational institutions and would only be fulfilling their missions to harbor other ISPs.

Chris: Yet if a black or Chicano artist working outside the institution were to mount an installation featuring the words "Fuck the Police," I think it would be reviewed very differently, if at all. Such an installation would be seen to be mired in the identity politics and didacticism that, in the 1990s, became the scourge of the L.A. art world. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 1996, critic David Pagel dismissed two decades of work by the black British artist/film-maker Isaac Julien exhibited at the Margot Leavin Gallery as "myopic and opportunistic." "The conservative exhibition," Pagel wrote, "contends that the social group the artist belongs to is more important than the work he makes… Art as self-expression went out in the 1950s." Pagel triumphantly concludes, "even though this show tries to deny it… market research puts people into categories; art only begins when categories start to break down."  

Andrew: One can love or hate the specific philosophical program at the Whitney ISP with its emphasis on conceptual rigor, but it offers a sustainable alternative to the current hot mess of bankrupting and bankrupted graduate education. There is one and there should be many, each different but committed and in the spirit of generosity that should inform all education.

Chris: Whereas modernism believed that the artist's life held all the magic keys to reading works of art, neo-conceputalism has cooled this off and corporatized it. The artist's own biography doesn't matter much at all. What life? The blanker the better. The life experience of the artist, if channelled into the artwork, can only impede art's neo-corporate, neo-Conceptual purpose. It is the biography of the institution that we want to read.

Andrew: I propose that we as a community accept the ISP model as equal to an MFA degree and move as quickly as possible from using a system that no longer serves us.

Chris: Reviewing dOCUMENTA (13) in New York magazine, Jerry Saltz coins the term "Post Art" to describe work that "doesn't even see art as separate from living … things that aren't artworks so much as they are about the drive to make things that, like art, embed imagination in material and grasp that creativity is a cosmic force … A chemist or a general may be making Post Art every day at the office."

Andrew: There are a million ways to do this. The simplest is to find a space and start giving classes. The more complex way that the Whitney ISP pioneered was to find a sponsoring institution, a group of serious artists, and start organizing. The solution needs to be tailored to and by both teachers and students.

Chris: Visiting UC San Diego's MFA Fine Art program last year, I observed that 70 percent of the work produced by its students could not be described as painting or sculpture or video or even as installation. Kate Clark, for example, was co-founding Knowledge Commons D.C., an interdisciplinary free school in Washington, and custom-making piñatas in San Diego. She'd developed the ‘business’ through posters and blogs. "I use the word 'business' in quotation marks," she emailed me later, "because I consider [it] to be more about a trade than a creative practice." Danny Cannizzaro was writing a novel that he plans to self-publish as an e-book. Iranian-born Elmira Mohebali was studying ancient Akkadian in order to translate Gilgamesh. Tomas Moreno was compiling an archive of his father's work in the Chicano community of the 1970s, and DJing club nights at several L.A. Central American venues. Gary Garray was working on music. Trained as an architect, Lebanon-born Rayyane Tabet was preparing an ambitious project tracing the forgotten history of the Trans-Arabian pipeline. He has since returned to Beirut to complete and exhibit the project.

 Andrew: We need to stop giving time, money, and credibility to institutions that no longer serve us. We can do this.

Chris: Jerry Saltz on "Post Art": "It's an idea I love… Things that couldn't be fitted into old categories embody powerfully creative forms, capable of carrying meaning and change." But what meaning? What change? One of art criticism's great limitations is its inability to look beyond its own context and language. Why would young people enter a studio art program to become teachers and translators, novelists, archivists, and small business owners? Clearly, it's because these activities have become so degraded and negligible within the culture that the only chance for them to appear is within contemporary art's coded yet infinitely malleable discourse.

Andrew: And while abandoning the MFA entirely looks attractive, at times, I’ve seen how much a concerted two years of making and thinking can have on a young artist’s work. I’m not yet ready to entirely give up on the experiment. But I’m close.

Chris: As the loose network of underground cinemas and film/video workshops established during the 1960s atrophied during the 1990s, documentary and non-narrative film-making migrated into the art world. Films and videotapes that formerly would have been produced and exhibited on the underground film circuit came to be redefined as part of an ‘artistic practice.’ William E. Jones, Laura Parnes, Andrea Bowers, the Bernadette Corporation, Sung Hwan Kim, and countless others produce films that demand continuous viewing but can only be seen in museums and galleries, augmented by saleable photographs, drawings or objects. Viewed and discussed more in the context of these artist's careers than through their meaning and content, the visibility of these films has been gained at the cost of their volatility.

Andrew: I hope we can find a new debtless way to educate artists in the US, in my city most of all, and I’ll do all a disorganized poet can do to create a sustainable alternative to the current system. It’s up to us that the next generation not be indentured servants to bankers, revenue to education-corporations, and products to feed to the culture industry.

Chris: Likewise, as the genre of ‘literary fiction’ contracts to describe only well-crafted, accessible stories, the writings of Josef Strau, Moyra Davey, Mark Von Schlegell, and countless others have come to exist not as books but as installation components and art-catalogue writing. For example, Oulipo member Harry Matthews, arguably one of the most important American poets of his generation, discusses his work with Bernadette Corporation member Jim Fletcher in artist Nik Gambaroff's most recent catalogue.

Andrew: How to start an art school?

Chris: When artists Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho (based in New York and Manila, respectively) wanted to study the growing subculture of the ‘call-center crowd’ in Camacho's native Manila, they created an art installation. As Lien explained in an email:

"These call centers have developed into 'communication mills’ that extend Filipino service cachet (friendliness, politeness, good English skills, social familiarity with American pop culture) into virtual assets. Generally young, earning a relatively very decent living, the call center workers storm clubs and bars during late nights and weekends and are known for their wild and sexually promiscuous behavior. Rumours abound. Because of the demand on many employees to work long shifts during unconventional hours (designed to accommodate American time zones) many of the call centers have sleeping rooms built into them, which are believed to be sites for cruising and scandal. We imagined this knowledge transference, this indoctrination of cultural difference via strange mantras delivered during call center training workshops ('there's America and there's the rest of the world,' 'Americans value fact over feeling,' etc.) The U.S. is something of a dream, pervasively present in every living moment in Manila due to the country's colonial history with the U.S. and the continuing soft-colonial management of its political and economic policies."

Andrew: We make space to dream, create, and later move on to give the same opportunity, freely, to others. Starting an art school begins here.

Chris: Perversely, as I write this, Journatic, a Philippines-based agency that supplies outsourced "local content" to U.S. newspapers, has been exposed for its use of fake bylines. In L.A., the staff of a leading business espionage bureau includes former investigative reporters and Pulitzer prize-winning war correspondents. Is it any surprise that Camacho and Lien would choose to transmute their research into visual metaphor, photographs and installations that can be shown in a gallery? There is a tremendous desire to know the world … a desire that seems greater to me than the involvement with visual art's intrinsically formalist questions. As Lien emailed me, "I feel like I really need this engagement with the Philippines in order to avoid total cynicism while living and working in New York." Market-driven though it might be, contemporary art offers a context for work that might once have been done within humanist disciplines now on the verge of becoming as extinct as ancient Akkadian.

Andrew: So let’s get to it.

Andrew Berardini and Chris Krauss appear courtesy of Momus and Artspace, respectively.