Thursday, April 3, 2008

I Need a Freak:
a medley of new and old, weird jams

Topics Covered:
A tangential, symbolic pseudo-explanation of a complex scientific principle I don't even fully comprehend,

Yes, that is GZA and no, "Come Do Me" will not be featured here.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy tends to increase in an isolated system. "What exactly is entropy?" you ask (very reasonably.) Honestly, I'm not qualified to give a detailed answer, but my understanding is improving. Until recently I had always equated it with dynamism and chaos, but strictly speaking it's more of a state of disorganization. Though an increase in entropy will yield spontaneous changes, it ultimately amounts to an aimless, torpid mass. It shouldn't be defined as "randomness" exactly since it's actually the most statistically probable state of matter. In fact, organized systems like, say, the human body or the earth's ecosystem, are practically miraculous in that the likelihood of their emerging from whatever event set the universe in motion was almost nonexistent, and yet here they are, functioning pretty well considering the circumstances.

Is this what lies at the root of our attraction for the new and the strange, our awe at the sheer improbability of their existence? Maybe subconsciously we interpret fresh, original art work is a sign that we are successfully staving off the flood of entropy, that things will continue to work out as long as we can invent and adapt. We don't just want freaks, we need them to ease our existential angst.

Or maybe they're just really good at entertaining. In any case, here are some songs which have been making me feel revitalized lately:


"I Need a Freak" - Sexual Harrassment
So much about Sexual Harrassment as a band remains mysterious to me. Who were they? Why did they only make one, 6-song record? Did they intentionally misspell "harassment"? Their sound is comparatively easier to nail down. The overall result is similar to vintage Prince except somehow even stranger and more indulgent, perhaps partially from the lack of context. This track in particular has a lot going on. The contrast between its subject matter and its super-serious, almost urgent delivery is kind of off-putting in a good way, like a perverted political manifesto. Also, is it just me or does that repeated synth line sound suspiciously like "My Humps"? I'm on to you, Fergie.


"Shhhy" - Food for Animals
Their new album, Belly, is definitely worth your time. It's an inexplicably consistent synthesis of disjointed electronic noise and straightforward, political rap. I won't even bother with further description since this track is an absolute banger and pretty much speaks for itself. However, in the spirit of stereotypical music journalism hyperbole, allow me to posit a hypothesis: this could very well be the future of hip-hop.


"Sorairo no Kureyon" - Happy End
I found out about this band from Neojaponisme's article on Rolling Stone Japan's list of the top 100 Japanese Rock albums. Kazemachi Roman, the album this track comes from, was #1 and even though my understanding of the lyrics is very limited (according to Wikipedia it's a concept album about Tokyo after the 1964 Summer Olympics) it's easy to see on a purely aesthetic level why this would have such a broad appeal. It takes all the established tropes of the various folk-related genres and does them very well. I particularly enjoy "Sky-Colored Crayon" because it's just so much fun to hear such a stereotypical country song (a style with such strong associations with a particular region of a particular nation) sung in Japanese. The melody sounds dead-on like Neil Young. It even has yodeling! I don't know whether to chalk it up to cultural imperialism, postmodern appropriation, or the universal appeal of melancholy slide-guitar.


"Beautiful Rebel" - Jeremy Jay
Something about Jeremy Jay's sing-talking, guitar-strumming style reminds me of Lou Reed, but with less disillusionment. The riff on this track sounds especially glam-rock, though there's an innocent quality in Jay's voice which subverts that genre's pervasive sense of artifice and ironic detachment. Even when what he's saying doesn't really make much sense, he says it with such conviction you really start to buy into the total, surreal vision.


"Quality Crayon Wax OK" - Essential Logic
Lara Logic was a founding member of X-Ray Spex, one of my favorite punk bands. She dropped out before they had recorded a full album, but she played saxophone on "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" which is an accomplishment by itself. If you're a fan of Germ Free Adolescents, listening to Beat Rhythm News is like spotting an old acquaintance from high school on the street, but then getting closer and realizing it's actually just a stranger: simultaneously nostalgic and jarring. There's enough of a similarity that it seems familiar, but more rigorous scrutiny reveals a much more subdued, experimental sound.

This is what comes up on a Google image search
when you type in "Water Curses"

"Street Flash" - Animal Collective
Though Avey Tare contributed a really lovely song to the recently released Living Bridge compilation and Panda Bear's newest solo album has garnered a lot of well-deserved praise, for me nothing can compare to their work as a group. There's always so much going on in their music and yet somehow it never devolves into cacophony or mindless gimmickry. This is one of my favorite bands so it's hard for me to be objective, but I think the forthcoming Water Curses EP is some of their best material yet, album or otherwise. It surprised me to hear that these are actually B-sides from Strawberry Jam. Electronic beats are dominant in the mix, sure to remind some of those giant typewriter sounds at the end of "Derek, but the overall mood is definitely very laid back since 3 of the 4 songs are of the long, expansive variety. This one for example is just about a guy who goes out for a walk to get his mind off the troubles of the day, but it sounds more like an epic, introspective journey.


"No More Workhorse Blues" - Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
To conclude this post, here's one of my favorite music video of all time for the retooled version of "No More Workhorse Blues". Apparently it was directed by Harmony Korine and typical of his oeuvre there's an overload of cultural signifiers (race, gender, class), but no real clue as to what they're supposed to mean. I think it's one of those things you either really connect to on a visceral, almost sublinguistic level or dismiss entirely. In the former case it's pretty much impossible to explain the narrative you've constructed from his fragments without sounding like a pretentious douche (as I'm sure I've demonstrated here.) On the plus side, nobody gets AIDS and there's that great Dave Berman backing vocal at the end to haunt your dreams.

Stay weird, y'all.

P.S. If you've happened across this blog and you have some work you'd like to recommend (even your own) as worthy of investigation drop me an email or comment. Obviously, I'm always happy to check out new things.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Recuperating Reality: a (relatively) brief addendum

Topics Covered:
criticizing the critic,
a personal denial of cultural imperialism,
spring break (wooo!)

In a recent correspondence with official Bro o' the Blog and Future Shipwreck WEBMASTER, Graham, he raised some very shrewd points about my latest post which I feel need to be addressed in order to give a more balanced view of the subject matter. I mean, that should be pretty easy, right? I'm just talkin' 'bout reality!

First of all, I think I might have come off as a bit too uncritical of Baudrillard's theories. Looking back over the piece, I think the only explicit skepticism I voiced was in reference to the false sense of nostalgia embedded in his "successive phases of the image". However, as with any highly abstract theory making dramatic claims about the nature of existence, there is obviously a lot more with which one might take issue. Though I think in general he makes some really good points I too have some significant concerns.

Glitter Graphics

Portrait by K. Winfrey
Blingees: Possibly the ultimate manifestation of
"late capitalist" excess.
Certainly the most sparkle-y.

1. To a certain extent the arguments in "The Precession of Simulacra" are elitist. Not just in the sense that they are often unnecessarily convoluted and couched in esoteric terminology which excludes the casual reader, but they also assume a degree of economic/social over-development. A prevalent amount of excess and leisure is required for a society to produce things which are purely representational rather than purely functional. The same is true on an individual/consumer level. Try to talk to a homeless man on the street about the symbolic significance of the McDonald's cheeseburger he is eating (their current "urban-hip" image they are promoting, their status as an international standard of corporate America and fast food production in general, etc) and he would probably tell you to fuck off. To a person who requires cheap nourishment and doesn't possess the resources to prepare that food themselves the "reality" of that cheeseburger is not in question. I am hungry, the hamburger will temporarily alleviate this hunger. Baudrillard seems to forget that a lot of the time people act simply out of necessity, not to make a statement which in a Kantian sense means they are not actually exercising free will and therefore not fully "participating" in the discourse of representation. Furthermore, even if conflicting arrays of meaning exist as a result of an individual action that doesn't necessarily mean they will be personally relevant.

Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings - always darker, emptier and simpler.

2. How urgent is this crisis of reality, really? There is a famous line in Apollinaire's poem "Merlin and the Old Woman" which states: "J'ai fait des gestes blancs parmi les solitudes." (Loose translation: "I made blank gestures among the solitudes.") In spite of the nihilistic implications of this sentiment, Susan Sontag observes in her excellent essay "The Aesthetics of Silence" that he is still making gestures. Even if an action is ineffectual in its aim to create/enforce a desired meaning something is undeniably happening. What is its significance purely as a gesture? Baudrillard never bothers to address that.

It's one thing to have critics and academics saying, "There is no reality any more!", but at the same time it's not as if the world is on the verge of immediate collapse. You couldn't perform the activities necessary for daily existence if you didn't believe in at least a fundamental, empirically observable reality. Obviously the majority of people, even those who accept the aforementioned critics' arguments, have found ways to cope (though not always with positive results) and if you're not going to offer a more inspired method then what's the benefit of worrying about what's already happened? Though the process might not be entirely conscious, I think we all have a sort of a Nietzschean moment in our life when where we're faced with the overwhelming subjectivity of existence and we're like, "Ok, maybe there's no objective basis for this, but I've considered the available information, I've satisfied my intellectual conscience, and like my way of seeing things the best so I'm just going to act according to that." There's something noble in that kind of egotism. If Baudrillard's theory has a practical value it lies in the formation of perspective (i.e. don't be fooled into making false judgments based on relative hierarchies of real/unreal), but it's pretty useless in terms of actual, personal application.

Brings new meaning to the phrase "gender performance".

3. Can we find a middle ground between iconoclast and iconolater? I believe the answer to this question is a resounding, "Yes!" and yet Baudrillard never explicitly investigates this possibility. Instead of completely accepting or rejecting a system of imagery one can alter or subvert it from within. You know, that whole SLC Punk, "taking down the system from the inside" ethos. On a level of personal representation, Queer theorist José Muñoz refers to it as "disidentification": neither fully identifying with an image (which involves artificially ridding oneself of personal traits which don't fit the desired identity and adding ones that do) nor counter-identifying (which merely sets one up as the opposite of the existent image, effectively allowing the rejected system to set the criteria of "what you are not"), but rather actively performing an identity in such a deliberate way where one is legible as such even without fitting the assumed prerequisites.

On a broader level of "social" realities, Slavoj Žižek refers to the Lacanian notion of "traversing the phantasy" in which we fully accept our constructed reality in order to come in more intimate contact with the truth it contains: "The lesson of psychoanalysis here is [...]: we should not mistake reality for fiction - we should be able to discern, in what we experience as fiction, the hard kernel of the Real which we are able to sustain only if we fictionalize it." This has the additional benefit of recuperating some of the value of simulated realities which in Baudrillard are merely alienating. Žižek contends that the "real" events in our lives (pain, tragedies, etc.) often take the form of the spectacular and thus they are not necessarily of any more value as an apparatus to "ground" oneself in a fixed sense of reality. Both the real and the simulation contain elements of each other and that overlap is perhaps the most fecund mental space to inhabit.

4. This ain't no Neojaponisme. I'd just like to make it clear that the examples I used in my post are in no way meant as an attempt to make my arguments seem more interesting by instilling them with the sense of "exoticism" and "wackiness" typically associated with Japan in our culture. They simply happened to be the most conducive examples to making the points I wanted to make. That's all I really have to say about that.

Well, I'm heading off to LA for the latter part of my Spring Break. Until next time, celebrate your subjectivity with these jams:

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The "Desert of the Real" is populated with kawaii J-Pop Idols doing nothing in particular

Topics Covered:
Introductory "Precession",
the trouble with icons (more than you might think),
the number one cause of Hello Kitty-related violence,
murder, suicide, possibly both at the same time,
obscure celebrities going about their business.

Prepare to have your mind adorably blown.

When you read Jean Baudrillard's essay, "The Precession of Simulacra", you get the feeling that what's at stake in representation is a lot more than just the possibility of clear and efficient communication of ideas through imperfect/unstable symbols, rather simulations have the potential to completely undermine your entire notion of an objective "truth" or "reality". At first that sounds really melodramatic, but as you read along his argument proceeds in such a logical fashion that your very doubts begin to seem unreasonable. After all, how often do you contemplate the objective basis of your views? What would happen if someone could replicate the conditions of reality without satisfying any of your prerequisites for establishing something as real? What does it matter if you ultimately can't even tell the difference? I don't really have definitive answers to any of those questions, but follow me anyway on a magical voyage into HYPERREALITY!

First of all, it's important to establish that what Baudrillard means by "simulation" is not the same thing as "copy" or "model", rather it is a construction which completely recreates the appearance and effects of the original to the extent where the two are essentially indistinguishable. A "model" would be something like a ship in a bottle. You can differentiate it from a "real" ship because it is much smaller in size and it can't serve the same purposes (i.e. it is purely aesthetic, incapable of actually transporting goods or people across a body of water.) The primary example he uses for "simulation" is psychosomatic illness. It creates symptoms identical to those of a "real" illness to such a degree of accuracy that the sufferer truly believes that they are sick, but there is no observable biological cause. Is a psychosomatic illness any less real simply because it doesn't fit Louis Pasteur's Germ Theory of Disease? Of course not, but where does that leave us? Pasteur's theory describes the majority of cases so it still helpful, but it is no longer tenable as the objective "truth" behind all illness. Simulations have a tendency to complicate matters like that by exposing what we thought were fixed rules as merely generalizations, thus undermining the basis of our reality.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot we can do to recuperate a sense of stability other than A) placing our faith in representations or B) trying to escape them completely. Of course, both of those strategies carry their own sets of problems. Baudrillard describes the conflict between iconolaters (image worshipers) and iconoclasts (image breakers) prominent in Reformation period Christianity. The iconolaters fell into group A, they "were content to venerate God at one remove", using religious images like crucifixes and statues. Of course, along with such practices come instances of idolatry where the image itself starts to receive praise rather than the deity it is supposed to be representing. So the group B types, the iconoclasts, decided to do away with religious representation completely in order to restore honor to the "true" God and they went around actively destroying religious depictions. However, their insecurity ultimately did more to undermine their truth than uphold it since the logic of their protests instilled the images with a kind of power which even the iconolaters had never intended. If people could apparently receive miraculous boons from a statue which wasn't actually representative of God, then what was the difference? Perhaps there was never a truth behind the image and God was never anything more than a human construction from the beginning.

It's really a problem with no solution since human culture has already become too dependent on symbols to be able to function without them. Even simple communication requires a certain degree of "faith" that your words represent real objects and phenomena which the listener can also understand and so comprehend your meaning. To paraphrase Derrida, there is no way to get outside of the discourse of imagery.


Throughout the essay, Baudrillard expresses a nostalgia for something like a simpler time when images authentically meant what they said. It's almost as if the image has grown progressively stronger as Postmodern thought and practice became more and more thoroughly integrated with our culture.

"These would be the successive phases of the image:
[1]-it is the reflection of a basic reality
[2]-it masks and perverts a basic reality
[3]-it masks the absence of a basic reality
[4]-it bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum."

Whether or not this is actually a modern development or merely symptomatic of a more general acceptance of symbolism without an observable, preexisting referent is kind of a moot point. The really interesting thing is looking at cultural examples of progression to higher levels of simulation and noting the changes which allowed for this advance. Japanese culture in particular is famous for adapting existing "Western" concepts and retooling them in such a manner which achieves the same effect as the original (often even more efficiently and fantastically), but through means which disregard the prototype's rationale.

Let's start with an example from popular culture: the promotional mascot. When you think of Frosted Flakes you probably think of Tony the Tiger. In commercials Tony is always playing sports with the kids, both a participant and a role model encouraging children to adopt a more active lifestyle. Even his endorsement for the product, the resounding "They're Grrrrreat!", sounds like someone cheering for the home team. The question is: what does any of this have to do with Frosted Flakes? They're not especially healthier for you than any other cereal, they won't improve your teamwork, and they certainly won't increase your physical abilities. This is the classic American conception of a mascot: it signifies positive qualities which the viewer will then associate with the product even though they don't actually exist in the product itself. This is a third order simulation which masks the absence of a reality (i.e. the only inherent value in cereal is nutritional and Frosted Flakes will not actually make you better, faster, stronger, etc.)

Anyone familiar with contemporary Japanese culture knows that it is chock-full of promotional characters. Practically every product is partnered with a charming creature to endorse it and even non-consumer based institutions like Volunteers for Children's Rights Protection and government prefectures have their own mascots. However, the ultimate manifestation of this phenomenon appeared back in 1976 with the Sanrio corporation's official licensing of the now ubiquitous "Hello Kitty". What makes Kitty so revolutionary is that she is largely considered to be the first mascot to precede her products, intended to be consumed in and of herself. Unlike the traditional Western model where the product comes first and then a character is created to add positive connotations onto it, Hello Kitty inverted the system by having products made to promote her adorable visage. She is a fourth level representation, a pure simulation of cuteness, unbound to any particular set of personal characteristics (unlike Tony, her "personality" is entirely aesthetic) or physical format making her an empty vessel capable of promoting anything and everything. Tarot cards, exhaust pipes, toasters, sex toys; Kitty has appeared on all of them and regardless of the item's specific function the "truth" she embodies (which is nothing more than her appearance) alters it into something equally decorative and insouciant. This is the very real and unnerving power of pure simulation: it doesn't refer to anything other than itself so it can contain any value and never compromise its own integrity.

What can't she do?

For a more "high cultural" example of this same principle, let's turn now to the fiction of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, one of modern Japan's most critically lauded authors. His short story, "In a Grove" ("Yabu no Naka"), which, incidentally, is also the basis of the famous Kurosawa film Rashomon, was first published in 1922. While the West was embracing Modernism, a style which tends to complicate the notion of reality by including a multiplicity of equally valid perspectives in relationship to the same event, Akutagawa came out with this text which actually has a lot more in common with Postmodernism, a style which ups the ante by containing a multiplicity of realities in irresolvable conflict with one another. Based on a traditional Japanese folktale, the plot basically amounts to a series of oral accounts describing the events which led up to the murder of a well-to-do man in the titular grove. Each of the first-hand witnesses of the death, a known criminal, the man, and his wife, all describe the event differently and each one takes the blame for the killing (the man is contacted through a spiritual medium, the other two confess to the police.) Each of their explanations is equally viable in relation to the available evidence, but the reader, placed in the position of the confessor (as in one who receives the admission of guilt), will inevitably feel compelled to make a judgment as to which is the "true" account in spite of the absence of an objective basis for such a decision. The point, of course, is that justice can't exist in the presence of multiple truths so in order to restore our faith in the logical enforcement of morality we often have to act arbitrarily. Baudrillard describes this as being symptomatic of our current climate of representation:

"No more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept. No more imaginary coextensivity: rather genetic miniaturization is the dimension of simulation. The real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks, and command models- and with these it can be reproduced an infinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational."

How can justice be truly "just" if apparently authentic motives and guilt and be produced and reproduced to fit any situation? What we are left with is a fourth level simulation of justice, a system which is forced to accept any number of plausible explanations in order to sustain itself with no real obligation to entertain concepts like "right" and "wrong".

This movie is even better than Clue, I swear!

Ok, well that was kind of a bummer, so let's turn now to something which should be more comfortingly familiar: reality television. Criticism of reality TV is well-worn territory, I know. Skepticism is almost expected to such an extent that shows have begun to explicitly reassure the audience of their own authenticity. When the Court TV network made its transition to the much more generalized truTV at the beginning of this year it came equipped with a bold new slogan to set itself apart from its "over-produced" brethren:


The truth, of course, is that the change was little more than nominal. If you look at its programming lineup you'll see the same shows they've been broadcasting for years. No, for something truly unique it's best to look to an outside source. Japanese popular culture saves the day once more!

If you're not familiar with the J-Pop supergroup Morning Musume, consider this your formal introduction:

Of course, Morning Musume (or Momusu for short) are more of a relative concept than a fixed team of artists. Though quite successful in their own right, the group also functions as kind of a marketing machine for their label, Hello! Project. Established members eventually "graduate" to solo careers or smaller sub-groups and new members are then auditioned to replace them so the roster is constantly changing. Nevertheless, even though they remain indistinct as individuals, as a collective they have undoubtedly already penetrated your subconscious. When you first saw those videos online demonstrating the stereotypical "wackiness" of Japanese television, you were watching Morning Musume.

The prevalent youtube clip "Dramatic Prairie Dog", which has spawned so many parodies, was also taken from a TV appearance with Momusu.

But there's an even more amazing show you've probably never heard of: Futarigoto. (Roughly translated, "Together".) Basically it consists of a variety of interview segments with the girls from the band, but one in particular is uncannily captivating. A given girl lounges around by herself in a well-furnished Tokyo apartment. That's it. There's no narrative progression, no challenges, no goal, no cheesy host, no special obligation to be entertaining... there's not even any creative editing to create the illusion of action, just a few transitional skips ahead during the really static portions. In fact, often the girl will seem confused as to what she's supposed to be doing. One just does math homework for her entire segment (positive role model!) Another watches a horror movie on DVD and all we see are her reactions. It's absolute fucking mundanity, but the whole time there's this news ticker on the side of the screen giving frequent, enthusiastic updates like this is breaking news.

Even the ingrained idea that the lives of celebrities have their own inherent glamor doesn't seem to hold up especially when you have only a dim perception of why the subject is supposed to be interesting in the first place and yet somehow it's still hard to look away. What does it all mean?!

Baudrillard conjectures that in the old days simulations designed for entertainment often served the secondary purpose of bolstering our sense of reality. You step outside the gates of the Magic Kingdom in Disney Land and suddenly you're in a giant parking lot. You want to be immersed in fantasy, but only temporarily and within certain, defined limits so that you can leave with a deeper appreciation for the stability of the everyday world. Now reality is our entertainment and not the just kind of "reality" where people are vying for social supremacy on a deserted island or competing for an exclusive job position, but also the quotidian stuff your little sister does when she gets home from school. Our actions are serious to us when we perform them, but with a digital camera they can be converted into mass amusement. Star Wars Kid, Chris Crocker, Lil' ShowStoppa: none of them intended the joke they became. People are becoming alienated from their own lives. Now you can actually become famous against your will. Welcome to the Desert of the Real.

Here, soothe your Postmodern paranoia with some classic Japanese jams:

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Commentator Strikes Back (never first!)

Topics Covered:
Words of hope for all of you melancholy word-lookin' folks,
A Brief Q and a long, involved A
(including exactly one Lil' Wayne citation),
A defense of Existentialism as a defense for criticism


Dear Reader,

Don't worry, I have already found the perfect Pablo Neruda poem to express the rollercoaster of emotions you have undoubtedly been experiencing in that long, anxious void between my last post and this, my triumphant return:

I like you when you are quiet because it is as though you are absent,
and you hear me from far away, and my voice does not touch you.
It looks as though your eyes had flown away
and it looks as if a kiss had sealed your mouth.

Like all things are full of my soul
You emerge from the things, full of my soul.
Dream butterfly, you look like my soul,
and you look like a melancoly word.

I like you when you are quiet and it is as though you are distant.
It is as though you are complaining, butterfly in lullaby.
And you hear me from far away, and my voice does not reach you:
let me fall quiet with your own silence.

Let me also speak to you with your silence
Clear like a lamp, simple like a ring.
You are like the night, quiet and constellated.
Your silence is of a star, so far away and solitary.

I like you when you are quiet because it is as though you are absent.
Distant and painful as if you had died.

A word then, a smile is enough.

And I am happy, happy that it is not true.

It ain't true. And you're welcome. Now, back to business.

When we left off so long ago you were in deep suspense about what our interviewee, Brad Troemel, would ask the interviewer, me, when the power of question and commentary was shifted his way. The result, terse though it may have been, prompted the following manifesto/mission statement. I hope it will give y'all a better sense of who I am and what I'm trying to accomplish with this, one blog in an endless sea of artistic/social commentary available on the internet.

BT: tell me about yourself. you're no joke, man. you're from kentucky? did you go to college?

Dan: Though I don't think I'll end up staying here forever, Kentucky actually kind of rules in its own way. It's beautiful, it has a monopoly on the production of bourbon/champion racehorses, and it is now home to a 27 million dollar Creation Museum (that's a museum funded mostly by private donations the sole purpose of which is to disprove evolution.) There's also this weird confluence of Southern tradition and hip, super-motivated, creativity in its major cities. For example, Kevin Schnieder of Apples in Stereo lives in Lexington and Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy) is from Lousiville. In general, you do have to put up with a lot of social crap in order to live here, but, given the proper level of personal remove, that crap can be kind of awesome. Go to any flea market and you will find the most amazing ideological merchandise possibly in the entire world:


As for me, I'm currently double majoring in Literature and Japanese Language/Culture at Miami University in southern Ohio. As an institution of learning it's incredible (and very demanding; I spend about 10-12 hours a week outside of class working on Japanese alone, thus my prolonged absence), but as a social environment it ranks up there with the crowd at an Ann Coulter book-signing. The majority of the student body consists of rich, white, hyper-conservative kids with an astoundingly large sense of entitlement. Plus we're basically in the middle of corn fields. I guess you could say my "life of the mind" has benefited as a result, I mean, I practically started this blog as a way of keeping myself sane until the end of this, my final semester before graduation.

Photobucket Photobucket
From Brad Troemel's Zero's Heroes Series
Not such a far cry from the average Miami Student

As far as art, I tend to gravitate more towards "high/conceptual" (or what might be deemed "hipster-ish") stuff just because it's already been placed in a context which invites analysis and commentary by insisting on its own "artistic-ness" so to speak (as opposed to "low/genre" stuff which, when interpreted, often leads to the accusation that one is "reading too much into it.") However, I'm also pretty much disgusted by the shallowness of the culture and criticism it produces. The majority of music blogs, "hip" magazines, etc operate from the assumption that whatever they like is good and therefore all they need to do is sort of point it out, relate it to another obscure work, and take all the credit for establishing their subject's career. Even interviews, which should be at least mostly about the person they're talking to, tend to look more like private conversations whose only purpose is to demonstrate how the interviewer is "totally bros" with the interviewee. I on the other hand, to quote Lil Wayne (best rapper alive, sorry Kanye), strive to "break a bitch down like Tanya Harding".

I don't think my ideas or tastes are the best for anyone but me, but I really try to respect the artist and their work by engaging them/it seriously, extrapolating some of the valuable ideas, and placing them in a broader context to demonstrate their relevance to other art and the world in general. The whole point of art criticism and appreciation to me comes across well in Sartre's famous Existentialism is a Humanism essay:

"Now, for the existentialist there is really no love other than one which manifests itself in a person's being in love. There is no genius other than one which is expressed in works of art; the genius of Proust is the sum of Proust's works; the genius of Racine is his series of tragedies. Outside of that, there is nothing. Why say that Racine could have written another tragedy, when he didn't write it? A man is involved in life, leaves his impress on it, and outside of that there is nothing. To be sure, this may seem a harsh thought to someone whose life hasn't been a success. But, on the other hand, it prompts people to understand that reality alone is what counts, that dreams, expectations, and hopes warrant no more than to define a man as a disappointed dream, as miscarried hopes, as vain expectations. In other words, to define him negatively and not positively."

In other words: "great art" does not exist objectively, rather it is dependent on the work of humans (the artist and the audience) to extract its value through creation and active interpretation. I write about stuff because I care about the ideas it represents since its often something I've experienced myself. I'm aware that even the most well-reasoned criticism can never be totally objective and at least part of the fun of reading an essay or review is getting a specific, inherently limited viewpoint. On the other hand, I don't want to be like the commentator from Nabokov's Pale Fire and praise the work of others mostly to make myself look good by association.

As a sidenote: I'm generally not a very serious person. I mean, I jam ABBA and Prince way more often than Gang of Four or This Heat, but I sometimes worry that I come off as pretentious or exclusive just because I'm used to writing research papers for strict grammarians. That's not my intent. I'm just trying to communicate in the most efficient manner I know.

That'll be all for now. Enjoy the jams and look forward to another post this week on the hyperreality of Japanese reality television!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Interview: Photographer Brad Troemel expounds on the virtues of giving ups to artsits while they are still alive.

Topics Covered:

ways in which Brad Troemel is not John Shade,
Juggalos as advocates for family values,
art school economics,
the wisdom of "Big Brother" (the song, not the sinister distopian figurehead),

The foreword to Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Pale Fire, (which, incidentally, is also the namesake of this blog) concludes with a rather pithy observation on the limits of self-representation through art: "for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word." Of course, it also helps if your subject of interpretation is dead and unable to contest your assertions about their work.

In the case of this Pale Fire the commentator would be me. However, instead of trying to summarize Nabokov's work, which would hardly do it justice, or attempting to sum up the interesting issues it raises about the concept of the "artistic persona", which wouldn't make much sense to those who haven't read the book, I decided to attempt something which would complicate some of the major ideas and put them into practice. Such is the inspiration of the interview you are about to read. Whether or not it succeeded in its original aim, I'm not sure, but I learned a lot about Insane Clown Posse fans and educational financing.

The Interviewee: artist, student, champion.

Brad Troemel is not dead, nor is he a character in a perversely metafictional narrative entirely of my own creation. He is a young and talented photographer currently based out of Chicago. From what I can see he is also very busy. Aside from school and producing new work he also maintains a website where you can browse through archives of his previous projects and a relatively informal blog where he habitually hypes the artists he loves and occasionally self-promotes (though usually by association.) Carrying on along those lines, Brad curated a show of some of his favorite photographers at the Satin Satan Gallery (for details see poster below.) Additionally, "Glacier", his upcoming solo show about "land displacement and the suburb's relationship with the natural world", will open at Reuben Kincaid Project Space (3219 S Morgan, Chicago, IL) on March 8th and carry on through April 12th. It will feature never before seen work.

I contacted Brad because his work, even apart from its aesthetic quality, almost always seems to hint at an engagement with aspects of the "artistic persona". In our correspondence he never raised any major objections to my interpretation, which is not to say there were no surprises in store. I sent him groups of questions, he responded, and we even bonded in a touching montage sequence (not depicted here.) These are the results:


1. Are you down with the clown?
How familiar were you with the Juggalo subculture before you arrived at their "
Gathering"? Do you see your photo series as an objective portrayal of their activities or were you trying to get a particular critical perspective about their lifestyle across (and if so, what)? Were most of them eager to pose or sort of "perform" (i.e. act the part of a hardcore Juggalo) when they saw your camera? Were there some people there who didn't really fit your expectations as Juggalos/photographic subjects? If so, what was your reaction to them?

I began researching the ICP and, more importantly, their cult of followers, the Juggalos, in the winter of 2006 in Boston. I read everything Googleable about them- scouring their website, fansites, personal essays. Then I began personal correspondences with individual Juggalos on Myspace. The range of intellectual explanations for the Juggalos was pretty astounding. I had college graduates send me their senior year thesis papers on being a Juggalo to the expected knee-jerk 16 year old reactions. This turned out to be a fairly accurate representation of a complicated group of people.

My camera was either met with indifference or enthusiasm. No one was opposed to being photographed. I think there were a couple reasons for this. They didn't expect someone who wasn't as outsider to be there. It's not in vogue to be a Juggalo like it is to be a punk rocker, so the idea of being a "poser" is one that really doesn't exist the way it does in other cultures. You're either in or you're out and if you're in with the Juggalos, you're all the way in. Neck tattoos, clothing, hair, face paint in public, the whole thing. No one at the Gathering was there to find out what it was about, everyone there was a die hard fan ready to connect with other die hards from all across the country. Many of the Juggalos had saved up all year just to attend the event so the idea of an outsider throwing down that much money (Editor's Note: tickets are $150 not including camping fees) to be with them for a week in the heat was pretty unheard of. The Gathering isn't a well known event like Ozzfest, which limits the scope of people willing to go even further. There are mainstream acts that play (like the Yin Yang Twins) but if you're a Yin Yang Twins fan you probably aren't going to be willing to live with Juggalos in the middle of a secluded forest for a week just to see those 2 or 3 mainstream acts play. Because of my attendance alone, I was by default a Juggalo for a week.


I think the Juggalos were willing to be photographed because they have already objectified themselves. With their whole look, they've made themselves spectacles to look at. Unlike a woman's cleavage, which you're both supposed to look at and are shunned [if] caught doing so, I was commended for paying extra attention to what my attention was supposed to be brought to. The idea of being a spectacle or being photo-worthy is appealing to them because it posits them against the mainstream. With t-shirts like "the most hated band/fans in the world", magazines reviewing ICP as the least talented band of all time, and being social outcasts in general, gaining attention by being the "other" is something they've came to accept and embrace. They've designated themselves as being outside of the mainstream as much as the mainstream has told them that. It is a source of pride that is nurtured through direct attention, or in this case my camera.

In my personal experience growing up with Juggalos I knew better than to think they'd look a certain way. Juggalos from my teenhood were ravers, nerds, anime-obsessives, whiggers, thugs, goths, Hot Topic mall punks, angsty suburbanites, and rednecks. The only people in attendance who really shocked me were the large number of families, babies, and people older than 40 who attended. Many whole families came to the event with each other, would smoke weed and drink with each other and would meet up with other families between performances to hang out in their campers. Babies and small children were everywhere too. The Gathering is an event all about comradery and family. "FAM - UH - LEE" was probably the most re-occuring chant of the week and was likely to break out anywhere- halfway through a band's set, prior to a performance, during a tea-cup ride, in the middle of the night from the top of a hill. You could always hear it and a lot of times people would actually show it, too. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't Haight St. in 1968 or anything, they weren't growing vegetables for one another but the amount of sex, willingness to share whatever drug they were doing, and overall respect for one another as being equals was definitely there. It was kind of refreshing in a weird way, coming from hipsterdom where the only thing that brings everyone together is the constant drive to out-do one another or to find something first. I don't think bringing a child to a place where there are titties and crack smoke is a good idea, but I understand the intent of the gesture- this is my family, and you are my family.


2. Is there such a thing as pre-meditated insanity?
Insane Clown Posse are a group which has gone to considerable lengths to build up a specific image and even a kind of mythology around themselves (by that I'm referring to the supposed story arc of the "Joker Card" albums among other things) which perhaps even they don't take entirely seriously though their typical fan certainly seems to. For all of the work that went into creating this very marketable and somewhat elaborate persona, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope are conspicuously absent from your pictures. Would you say that the men themselves are relatively unimportant compared to this idea of them to which all of the fans in your pictures are reacting? From your experience, why do you think people identify with this band? Was your deliberate exclusion of ICP in any way intended as a challenge to their powers of self-representation? If so, how?

In my research and personal experience with the Insane Clown Posse I think they're talentless crooks. However, what they've started and their fans have created has far surpassed them. Juggalos are united by Juggalos, not by the Insane Clown Posse. The Insane Clown Posse as a subject of artistic or critical analysis is an easy target. Juggalos are an interesting and complicated group of people full of contradictions and energy that I think is best expressed visually, not through words. In the case of the Gathering of the Juggalos and the Juggalo community as a whole, though the ICP does benefit financially, the ends justify the means. Being a Juggalo and having other Juggalos to talk to gives so many people friends and happiness that it doesn't matter if they buy some CD critics despise once a year.


3. How can art be free if it's been institutionalized?
You recently began attending art school and it seems from what I've read on your blog this was kind of a big decision for you. You even made a post where you asked some talented photographers to write a brief summary of their thoughts on such institutions and interestingly the responses were rather mixed (as far as being for/against it as a helpful use of time and money). How have you found it so far? Do you feel like you've become more self-conscious about your position as an "artist" since becoming a student? And now that you've delved further into the officially sanctioned art institutions as a curator for the Satin Satan show do you think the way you evaluate art has changed at all now that you may have to justify your tastes in a more formalized fashion?

I'll try to answer it putting as few people to sleep as possible. It's easier to word this in "you" than "I" so forgive me if I sound like a furor, everyone. haha.

There are two types of art school you can attend: the type that teaches you the technical aspects of design or the type that teaches you how to yap about your own work. I've went to a couple that have taught me how to yap and occasionally how to think. Now, if you attend the type that teaches you how to yap there are two states of mind you can have for your next four years of life. You can either try to surf on top of the wave or fall into the sea of ambitionless indifference. Being one of these two people isn't so much of a choice as much as it is a plain fact of your existence. It's not as though people choose to sit around smoking chron all day playing
video games in their dorms wasting their parents $40 G's a year over being a go-getting artist, they just are the way they are. These boring wastes can be a burden on people actually looking to learn or accomplish something over the course of their education, to look around and see nothing but mindless idiots wearing America Apparel scraping by assignment to assignment is pretty depressing. The school won't kick them out for sucking, either. My biggest bummer was that I first came to school thinking it would be a cornucopia of brilliantly talented young people waiting to grab the world by its balls. This turned out to not be the case. Jim Dow explained fine art school's unwillingness to lay down the law on students and say "hey, less gonja, more work" in a beautifully simple and cynical way: the 40 kids sitting around by the entrance of the art school all the time doing nothing are paying for the 5 kids' scholarships inside who actually are. Art school is just a pre-cursor to the way the art world works. The ones who will themselves to success end up succeeding, the rich and mildly talented go their four years and still can do whatever they want afterwards and the talentless middle class ones get a job bartending in Williamsburg. The exception being the talented shy ones who sometimes slip through the cracks and have to get a bartending job too.

Cash rules everything around me.

Think about art school scholarships for a while and you'll find another direct link into the art market. Whether you go to school for free or spend $30,000 in yearly tuition, there is no difference in the quality of education afforded to you. Scholarships are incentive to attend, not a reward for talent. Talent is never rewarded without something in return. Whenever someone is awarded money by an institution the purpose of that award is as much about helping them out as it is strengthening the credentials of the institution by being able to say they had a hand in their success, and this goes for everything from museum collections to the
Nobel Peace Prize. What does an art school stand to receive from giving a 17 year old a $30,000 opportunity? Much more than the money they are offering him. All it takes is one Nan Goldin for a whole school to make a great sales pitch to all those students who will pay the full price. This is where they make their money back- one hundred fold. Students are financial bets just like artists in Chelsea are.

Once you become aware that you're being used for your name or your money, it's time to start using the school. This means trying to get grants and using the usually fantastic and free facilities as much as possible. And those few, few smart teachers that aren't brain dead or senior citizens coasting on their tenure, get to know them. Make friends with the good teachers because they're probably really awesome people. At this point, the purpose of art school is for me to get my BFA so I can get my MFA so I can teach. You didn't think I'd be so critical then not try to give it a shot myself, would you?

My most important interactions and recommendations have been in bars and parties talking to people who really want to talk to me and who I feel comfortable with. Art school critiques are rarely productive because it requires every person to want to talk and to know what they're talking about. The way school is set up, very few people know anything though everyone feels pressure to say something. This usually leads to suicide-tempting conversations over what camera something should have been shot with or whether taking a picture of a poor person is exploitative. The moral of the story on art school is that you can either own the school or it can own you. By the way, this was all about art school BFA's. MFA's are a whooooolllleee different game.


Every artist should be hyping every artist they love. It's so easy to give people props these days that it's almost a diss not to. Start a blog, throw a link up on your site, put on a show in your house. I interned at a gallery for a second and what I learned was that there really wasn't anything to learn in running a not for profit. Choose the people whose work you like, get the work, buy a couple cases of beer, and have fun. Kanye said "
If you admire somebody you should go ahead and tell um / People never get the flowers while they could smell um". Satin Satan is an homage to Jason Lazarus's now-defunct Chicago DIY gallery, Jesus Chrysler. I know a bunch of talented up-and-comers and I want to hook them up in a show with more established artists as a way of bringing them to the next level. I like that it's a house and not an "official" gallery on Peoria St. or whatever. I always thought the atmosphere of galleries were kind of like funerals, solemn reflections on the present compared to history, when they should be wild drunken celebrations complete with nudity and beer bongs. Maybe that's just because I'm Irish. Or maybe because, as Beazy would say, I'm a "bro in disguise". The first show is a straight forward photo show and the next one will be too. I'm just getting a feel for how to do all this, so it will get better and better. Eventually I'll have more ambitious things in the space like installations, sculptures and performances but for now I'm just taking baby steps.


4. Excuse me, are you the Brad Troemel?
In a few of your recent projects you seem to be self-consciously projecting the persona of yourself as an artist. I'm thinking in particular of a photo series called "Special" and your Craigslist add for a person to act as your muse. In Special you juxtapose personal achievements such as shooting for Vice, taking graduate courses, and receiving a grant, all of which establish your sort of "legitimacy" as a serious artist, with the rather arbitrary achievement of climbing a tree. This could come off as both narcissistic in a "hey, look what I can do" way and self-deprecating in a "yeah, these things sound impressive, but they only really have as much value as you attribute to them" way. How do you expect people to view the work and yourself? Is it viable to use art to establish the importance of other art or does the vindication need to come from elsewhere? How has your quest for a muse gone?

If it's cool, I'm not finished with my Muses project yet so I'm going to just discuss Special.

I think you definitely hit on one of the ideas I initially had with that work in your description of it switching between being both narcissistic and self-depracating. I also like the idea of creating a work of art that is a resume as a sort of criticism on the way prestige is earned in art settings. It seems that people get shows based on their resume or the show they were in previously more often than the merit of whatever their new work is. They might as well not show the work, but hang their resume on the wall so people can see why they're actually there. If I were to present Special in a gallery, I would alter it to include another tree diptych which would say "I have a solo show in (insert whatever gallery it was in) Gallery!". The final part of the project where I go to Walmart would be replaced by an oversized trophy in the middle of the room with a banner hanging above it that said "CONGRATULATIONS, BRAD TROEMEL, ON YOUR SHOW IN ________ GALLERY!".

5. And finally, what fun would an interview loosely based around the concept of the artistic persona be without a post-modern role-reversal twist ending?
Feel free to pose any questions you would like to me.

TO BE CONTINUED: the thrilling resolution to this sequence of questioning will be the subject of my next, companion post "Pale Fire: a Manifesto". Look forward to it!

Until then, enjoy the jam:

Saturday, January 5, 2008

We're the couple that doesn't touch

Topics Covered:
Platonic thought's relevance to shoegaze, Romantic poetry, Surrealism, and the filmography of Vincent Gallo

Play-doh Plato. A good pun, but hardly Ideal.

Though perhaps a bit outmoded as a pragmatic worldview, Platonic Idealism has been remarkably resilient in the realm of art, manifesting itself continually throughout history in practically every medium and genre. In its original sense it referred to the notion that specific objects in observable reality are merely imperfect reflections of an eternal Ideal which exists in the realm of ideas as the standard by which we mentally apprehend the object's essence. To paraphrase Wikipedia's practical example: the tree in your back yard has a few dead branches and a pair of initials carved into it. These imperfections differentiate it from the Ideal tree which you envision in your mind when you think of what is meant by the word "tree". Perhaps a bit hard to believe, but as a concept it could justifiably be considered the basis of pretty much every post-modern, "meta" creative gesture you hold dear since it is so bound up in the process of creation. Art begins in the realm of imagination where it is theoretically perfect, in a sense Ideal, but as a means of communication it is inextricably linked to the real, limited by the flawed materials which compose it, etc., and thus it becomes an imperfect reflection of itself. Any piece which highlights its own inability to effectively convey its message or, even more elaborately, indicates a message but refuses to engage it explicitly for fear that doing so would distort its meaning owes a great debt to good, old-fashioned Platonic Idealism.

The allure of this dynamic was first made apparent to me through this song:

My intense love for "Sometimes" is almost entirely based on its deliberate refusal to deliver on the emotional catharsis it promises. The (discernible) lyrics are charged with romantic expectancy which is never resolved. The synth-y/organ-y strain builds and rises, but its volume never rises above the general murmur. It psychs me out every time and yet I'm never disappointed because, as corny as it may sound, I'm fairly certain the Ideal climax I imagine is better than anything Kevin Shields could have actually achieved (no offense, man.)

Speaking of the greatest songs never played you couldn't ask for a more canonical example than the second stanza of John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn":

"Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not they bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!"

These lines refer, of course, to the figures depicted on the titular urn of Greek origin, each frozen in time at a point before the completion of the action which gives their (real or imagined) life meaning. By being preserved in an Ideal, heroic posture they become eternal, fixed representations of abstractions, and thus are free from the stain of mundanity and the inevitable decay of mortals who are too unstable to function as signifiers of anything greater than themselves. An appropriate sentiment for a poet whose premature death did so much to cement his fame. Though the idea that an artist's imagination could somehow grant him access to the Ideal and this action's relationship to the real objects on which it is based are fairly common themes among the Romantic poets (equally famous examples of it are readily apparent in the work of Coleridge and Wordsworth) Keats stands out in particular as being a supreme champion of the mind and its power to create new realities through art, uncompromised by their transition. He famously wrote in a letter to Benjamin Bailey: "The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream--he awoke and found it truth." Perhaps it never occurred to him since it had endured so long that one day his urn might break.

If the Ideal was somewhat coded in the imagery of Romantic poetry, it couldn't get more overt than the Surrealist art movement which attempted to bring subconscious, prerational thought directly into the real world. Perhaps a bit counterintuitively, practitioners often tried to do this while utilizing materials and established formats which were already endowed with their connotations. Whether or not that nullifies their aim of making a "meaningless" work, an Ideal visual mystery which raises questions but doesn't provide enough clues to arrive at a definitive answer, I couldn't really say. Anyhow, one thing that is readily apparent is that a particular Surrealist's success on both a business and philosophical level is often directly linked to their ability to keep people guessing. Sometimes this might come off as "gimmicky" in a "dude, check it out the landscape is actually, like, a face cuz, like, we're all a part of nature, right?" kind of way, but in the work of someone like René Magritte even fairly straightforward images present a lot of intriguing details to puzzle over.

The Lovers


Man With a Newspaper

Though none of these images is beyond the realm of possibility they somehow come off as fantastical. In each piece the focus is simultaneously evident and obscured and so the viewer's attention is arrested indefinitely until their mind can create an explanation which can be plausible (the man simply finished the newspaper and went about his day) or implausible (he vanished, never to return) so long as it creates a justification for their initial interest. For me, Magritte's work come closest to achieving an Ideal mystery because it recycles the imperfect manifestation of the artist's thoughts back into the mind of the audience where it takes on its surreal qualities.

NOTE: this section will contain movie spoilers.

Multi-functional and fascinating though it may be, Platonic Idealism and its offshoots can be restrictive in their own way and just as much art has been produced in refutation of them as in acceptance. Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66 stands out as an excellent film which, on one level, functions as literal rejection of Idealism. The protagonist, Billy Brown (Gallo), wants so badly to create an Ideal image of himself that he abducts Layla (Christina Ricci) so he can put up a front as an embodiment of the American Dream (government job, a beautiful wife, the promise of offspring) for his parents. Hilarious hijinx ensue:

Lurking grimly in the background of this ridiculousness is Billy's equally Idealized plot for revenge against the former NFL kicker whom he blames for the sad state of affairs in his life. However, when he is about to perform his sinister deed he envisions the practical results of his action: two meaningless deaths and no one to appreciate his "glorious" gesture. Ultimately, he opts for a more nihilistic outlook, giving supreme importance to the real relationship he has cultivated with Layla rather than going through with the absurdly myopic vendetta he has fantasized about for so long. While reserved in its aspirations for greatness it comes off as feel-good in the end, so even a hardcore Idealist can come out of it feeling like a winner.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Some New Year's Portraits: Cause and Effect

This New Year's party was a lot more fun than most. Nobody had any emotional breakdowns, people got sick, but not in my vicinity, there were a lot of my best friends there and even more people I didn't know (including University of Kentucky's basketball phenom A.J. Stewart [bros!]), and best of all I had my brand new camera to document the occasion (which I very rarely remembered to use.) Most of the group shots were too crowded to really create any kind of composition, so here are a few of my favorite intimates:


She is the Arthur Fonzarelli to my Richie Cunningham

These kids are Kentucky's answer to the CobraSnake.

He is literally scoffing at Mark Hunter

Him too.

Me? I'm just jammin' (sans glasses plus neck tattoo.)


RIP Foosball Table
NOTE: This is not a metaphor for the horrors of underage drinking.

The next morning the living room had been converted into a Grapes of Wrath-esque shanty-town full of strange Freshmen huddled under improvised sheets. I officially declare "schadenfreude" to be the rallying cry of the new year.

It was almost such a good time that it was anticlimactic in a way. There wasn't really anything I would identify as a dramatic transitional moment.

Happy 2008 y'all!