Friday, December 31, 2010

on new years eve...



two real photo postcards taken by photographer charles howell, the "official photographer of pleasure beach, blackpool". the top one was taken in 1933, and was purchased from a guy in london two years ago. the second was taken in 1937, and purchased from a guy in india last week. since neither were ever postmarked, i am assuming at least one gent in each photo carried their respective photos home themselves... i'm also pretty sure the photo that eventually lived in india had a much longer journey...

as we move from one year into the next, we can be assured that life continues to move, although there will certainly be constants...

the hats might go from white to black
the banjos might get larger rims
and the suits might suit the day,
with a bit more black than gray.

but in the end, all 8 knees will continue to be bent
and the largest bottle of beer in the world
will always be between you and a friend -
even if its neck eventually gets straightened out
or its pedestal is transformed from a barrel to a bench.

yes, life will shift with the absence of three "little ones,"
but you can always change your landscape
from lush grotto to tree and distant mountains...

wishing you all a happy last day of this year, and a wonderful first day of next year... this year has certainly held for me at least a few days feeling somewhat like a place called pleasure beach, and i hope you all find your own way there in the year to come...

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

when a film and a concert elicit verbosity and a ramble...


several weeks ago i watched louis malle's 1974 film humain, trop humain... and a night later i went to see vicky ray and the eclipse quartet perform morton feldman's 1985 piece "piano and string quartet". i'd never seen malle's film before, and while i've listened to feldman's piece many times on CD (i once spent a month listening to it every night before sleep, and it might be my favorite piece of his music), i'd never had the opportunity to hear it live.

coincidence can be a strange thing. the film arrived a few days before the concert, and i watched the film without any real thoughts towards feldman's work until the following evening, when his origami-like music began folding and unfolding in on itself in front of my ears, and i couldn't stop thinking about the film... and the experience led to this lengthy ramble...

in simple terms the film and music (live) crossed paths in various places:

pacing (they both move slowly)

patience (in the works' trajectory, and the necessity of it by an audience)

precision (in movement and sound)

repetition (of seemingly mundane actions that become transcendent)

space, and or, breath (pauses or shifts, but never drama)

actual presence (as opposed to metaphor... i.e. you see what you see and you hear what you hear)

spectral particles (bigger things made of vibrating smaller things)

humans and objects in sympathy (be it an instrument or a machine)

duration (both are about the same length of time - depending on who is playing the feldman)

lilting (as in lilting moments amongst the tension)

tension (as in tension found between the lilts)

harmony (as well as dissonance)

abstraction (as an opposite to narrative)

implied space (through repetition and/or permutation)

actual sound (or image) generating ethereal space

hands (moving, lifting, rubbing, touching, working, playing)

drone (the resonance of a piano pedal, the resonance of machines)

choreography (as in the physical activities of the musicians and the factory workers)

and certainly finding more things to bind these works together would be as endless as listing their differences....


humain, trop humain, was filmed mostly in a citroen factory, and consists of various shots of folks working in tandem with machines. one of the most beautiful images is of a woman on some kind of vertical elevator, dangling a large roll of steel while moving across what seems to be an endless space of similar rolls arranged in patterns on the ground. the pace of the movement is slow, focused, and filled with a tension (not a danger tension, but a tension tension...) as if the situation is so fragile it might fall apart - perhaps a better term would be architectural tension, which is very much like certain moments of feldman's music. both pieces are also both rigorous and gentle at the same time, suggesting a space of patience and surrender, rather than endurance (and this idea could be applied in both cases to the performers as well as the audience).

like feldman's piece, malle's film has no true narrative - nor does it have any kind of spoken descriptions. the visual situation, as well as its accompanying sound, is the viewer's only known reality, and with feldman, the situation is similar: you don't go forward as much as you simply immerse. both works are about being "in the moment" as opposed to a necessity of looking forward or back for "meaning". while both works seem abstract, they are, in truth, much more actual, allowing the viewer/listener to move within the space (formal, emotional or otherwise) of what they are seeing and hearing - and if one is sensitive to such an experience, both works have the potential to elicit a transcendent response.

while malle's film is listed in most in reviews as a documentary, it is actually much closer to a field recording. neither the machines nor the workers are performing for the cameras, as much as their movement and sound are artifacts of situational activities. malle is not directing the movement nor the sound as much as he is documenting it. nonetheless, the editing, the point of view and the treatment of material in sound and vision ends up closer to poetry. in feldman's case, where sound is perceived as the primary audience experience, the visual choreography of the performers' synchronicity is also hard to ignore - and while it too is simply an artifact of music making activities, it is a visually beautiful thing to behold.


somehow, while watching both of these groups of humans move in certain rhythms related to the tasks at hand, i thought of cage's words about not wanting to replicate nature but being interested in working within nature's manner of operation. if anyone was able to write music that replicated the delicately finite workings of nature in a way that also reflects its abstraction, fragility, precision, permutation, repetition, implied randomness and slippery organization (slippery as in 'hard to grasp', rather than loose and free), it would be feldman. watching malle's film, one also gets the sense that even with the mechanical repetition of the machines, the human element gives these actions a different kind of quality - as if the two, man and machine, are coming together through negotiation, lending certain qualities of themselves to each other.

while most people would not consider malle's film in relation to the term "visual music", i do think that viewing it comes closer to that kind of experience than anything else, and i think the use of the words 'visual' and 'music' pressed together make sense in terms of how the film speaks (as opposed to the historical use of the term). although this idea was probably far from malle's concerns, i couldn't help but think about the film's repetitions - not only in obvious relation to a kind of dehumanized mechanical worker existence; but also how the mantra-like visual rhythms suggest the kind of integration of parts found in steve reich's early pieces, and perhaps even the repetitive nature of chant and prayer.

in terms of a different reading, vincent canby wrote about the film in relation to humor, irony and criticality - singling out a scene where a car-body is slowly submerged into a vat of soapy water which he suggests is a tongue in cheek reference to the film psycho. i'm thinking that canby and i have different eyes, because i lean a lot more towards transcendence and poetry than an ironic poke at car culture and the plight of factory workers. humain, trop humain is a complex film to experience, and canby's take seems too one dimensional a response. certainly the repetition of the actions of humans working in a factory is the focal point of malle's conversation; but it would be difficult to deny the work's complexity, as well as well as its potential for multiple readings, to suggest is is only about "plight".

the funny thing for me, is that the car-scene canby saw as a joke, i saw as one of the most beautiful sequences in the entire film. the slow moving image of the sinking vehicle seems much like a deep breath or pause, resembling an elephant slowly moving into a pond, to bathe with a sense of submerging and floating. to me, the scene felt more akin to the musicality of a requiem...

while many people have written about the film's lack of narration, i have yet to find a review that talks about the importance of malle's use of existing sound. his use of the factory's "natural" soundscape tends to, again, not only suggest a dehumanized work environment, but how the repetition of noise can also become lilting, musical, emotional, and at times, even beautiful. there are many moments in the film, where the sound takes over, and i was drawn away from the visual repetition, focusing suddenly more on the "film" that was coming out of the speakers than pictured on the screen.

after spending an evening with malle's factory workers, i found myself immersed in feldman's piano and string quartet, watching the musicians perform their necessary soundings, shifts and pauses. they were insanely precise. they seemed complex machines, but there was not a single second of the music that felt clinical or mechanical.

as the musicians were locked into something i would absurdly call feldman's "groove", they created not only a whole lot of delicate beauty, but a whole lot of tension as well. feldman's piece is spacious, pause-filled, and for the most part, relatively quiet; so one is not only aware of the music, but also of the sounds of one's own body and the sounds of the space. watching and listening to the musicians, it seemed that if anyone in the theatre misplaced a breath, feldman's fragile structure would cave in upon itself. this tension could also be found in certain latter sequences of malle's film, where the scenes became more about hands than spans, and the workers' activities became more intimately connected to their respective machines, where a break in one's focus might cost a finger or a hand. in both cases, the building process is always moving towards the potential precipice of collapse (although i'm not comparing the reality of a wrong note to a lost appendage...).

while the factory repetitions are truly repetitive (at least for the most part, as machines do have their own idiosyncracies), feldman's repetitions seem, at least to someone who doesn't read music, much more implied - feeling more like permutations than actual repeated sequences. while the repetition of the machines becomes more complex as they blend together into drone, feldman's implied repetitions are like watching really small waves... they all look the same at first, but over time you realize that no two are truly alike.. with feldman, everything suddenly becomes about perception and intricacies.

one of feldman's quotes in the program's notes also seemed to relate to malle's film:

"up to one hour you think about form.
after an hour and a half it's scale."

i know he was talking about his own music, but this idea would certainly be appropriate towards describing humain, trop humain as well; and in the end, as both pieces move from the building of single forms towards a scale, one is absorbed into either form's greater continuum.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

december 26, 1960

Jonas Mekas deep of winter
50 years ago today...

"we tried a new method of editing. we have cards for every shot. we layed them out on a huge reflector. we caught a roach and let it crawl through the cards. but somehow, the beast chose a very straight line, not interesting at all"

jonas mekas, december 26, 1960, from the diaries, in "the american new wave", walker art center, 1982, image circa 1964

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Friday, December 24, 2010

stars and tree...


float from the borders of the main.
the vast of heaven strung with brilliant stars.
how looks the night? there does not miss a star.
the million sorts of unaccounted motes
now quicken, sheathed in the yellow galaxy.
there is no parting or bare interstice
where the sting of compass of a skylark's wings
would not put out some tiny golden centre.
stars waving their indivisible rays.
sky fleeced with the milky way.
night's lantern
pointed with pierced lights, and breaks of rays
discover'd everywhere.
the sky minted into golden sequins.
stars like gold tufts.
- - golden bees.
- - golden rowels.
sky peak'd with tiny flames.
stars like tiny spoked wheels of fire.
lanterns of night, pierced in eyelets.
his gilded rowels
now stars of blood.
a star most spiritual, principal, preeminent
of all the golden press.
or ever the early stirrings of skylark
might cover the neighbor downs with a span of singing,
while phospher, risen upon the shallowing dark,
in the ruddied country of the day's up-bringing
stood capital, eminent, ... gonfalon-bearer
to all the starry press, -

gerard manly hopkins, star images: september to december 1864 (from poems for the millennium volume 3), image: cyanotype, 1870's

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

i am the last blossom of autumn...

i am the last blossom of autumn.
i was rocked in the cradle of summer.
i was placed on guard against the north wind,
red streaks appeared
on my white cheeks.
i am the last blossom of autumn.
i am the youngest seed of the dead spring:
how easy to be the last to die;
i have seen the lake so fairy like and blue,
i have heard the heartbeat of the dead summer,
red calyx holds only the seed of death.
i am the last blossom of autumn.
i have seen the deep starry universe of autumn,
i have seen the light of distant warm hearths:
how easy to take the same road.
i shall close the doors of death.
i am the last blossom of autumn.

edith sodergran, 1916 (in 8 swedish poets, 1963)

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Monday, December 20, 2010

one more birth of rock music... the rock-a-phone


"invented and
by a.b. gilman,
young st., berwick(?)
the stones are
mounted upon
rubber and are
struck with
mallets, three playing
at once. it is now
fitted also with
piano keyboard."

july 30, 1907


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Thursday, December 16, 2010

when horns are blown in opposite directions (as sound revolves around the world and finally collides...)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

when pickaxes are placed in bathtubs




yesterday evening, having after months of to-do listing bought a new handle for my big pickax, i fitted it to the pick head and set it to soak in the bathtub (the head was too large for any basin or pail i have.) the union of pickax and bathtub looked strange enough to suggest a “significance” of the umbrella/ironing board type, and i took a polaroid photograph of it. i had no flash, the film had stayed in the camera since last summer, recently in coldish (3 degrees C) condition - i’m trying to explain the results before describing them, which is a little like getting the dishes washed before dinner. what appeared on the three by three image bore no resemblance to the subject or to anything else. perhaps to a bent glowing tube, or a grooved, swerving edge of a saddle or a butterfly chair, but there clearly exists (as one looks) no tube, saddle, or chair, only shape, colors, shading, which nevertheless look like representations of real objects. it is hard for me to stop staring into this undecipherable image looking for a solution, knowing perfectly well that what i’m staring at can only be a chemical accident. i suggest that this image provides a model for the poem: an object that inspires desire while making clear from the start that it contains nothing to satisfy (only nourish) that desire. - later on, before going to bed, once again considering the pickax in the half filled tub, i found it most sympathetic, like a new pet just brought into the house and obliged to spend a night or two in these special conditions so as to be domesticated. the beast is curious but not utterly foreign. one must understand its shape as the product of epochs of genetic simplification, the body now smoothly elongated into pure, straight shaft, the head subsumed by what were formerly its appurtenances, the black, now asymmetrical horns.

lans 12/14/83

text from harry mathews 20 lines a day, this page written exactly 27 years ago today...
images from a 1998 series of polaroids taken by touching the lens of the camera to various surfaces...

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

the other jack smith...






few months ago i picked up a small 8 page black and white catalog of paintings by jack smith from 1963. before seeing the reproductions, i'd assumed it was the work of the jack smith who made the flaming creatures film and was a compadre of ira cohen and angus maclise; but once i saw the images, i figured these must've been made by someone else, and indeed this jack smith was a painter from england, born in 1928, who began showing in 1952.

after looking at the tiny catalog (and finding a few color images of the same paintings online), i'm thinking that smith's last name was his only "ordinary" characteristic, as the paintings are pretty darn idiosyncratic, and some of them are really really wonderful... and the more i see of british painting of the 60's and early 70's the more i wonder why no one on this continent ever talks about it.

having been immersed in the relationship of sound/music and painting, as well as notation and diagrams, smith's short artist statement in the catalog, was also quite a surprise:

"i think of my paintings as diagrams of an experience or sensation. the subject is very important. the sound of the object, its noise or its silence, its intervals and its activity. when i talk about the sound or music of the subject i'm not always thinking in terms of a symphony, but groups of single notes. the closer the painting is to a diagram or graph the nearer to my intention. i like every mark to establish a fact in the most precise, economical way."


last week i was visiting another artist's studio and we ended up talking about paths - life paths, career paths, etc. at one point he asked me if i thought that some artists were not successful simply because their work was just not that good. of course, the easy answer is that at times such things, painful as they may be, are certainly true... but there are clearly so many other reasons why work may or may not be recognized - and obviously, some of them have nothing to do with the actual work itself... from my own point of view, one of the reasons work can be ignored is simply the fact that the artworld is rarely interested in something that isn't compatible with "what's going on".

whenever i discover an artist like jack smith (either of them), i can't help but wonder about the kind of presence, or absence, my own work might have 20, 40, 80 years from now. while smith's work is in the collection of a number of major UK institutions - including the tate - and he is still showing work and represented by a london gallery and "well known", i wonder how much his work participates in the conversation now. do young people speak of it, know of it, or care about it? is it written about? is it making any noise? will he have a "lee bontecou moment"? the work is certainly relevant, and not just as a precedent.

when i was in undergrad school in the mid-1980s, i discovered the work of arthur dove in a library. the funny thing is that i thought because i'd never heard of him, that dove was an obscure artist. dove's "irrelevance" was confirmed by the fact that none of the people i'd mentioned my "discovery" to had anything good to say about him; although for me, in the midst of all the spectacle going on at the time, dove - as well as ryder - felt like an antidote, and sort of saved my life - for in their humble endeavors, i felt a bit of a kinship towards my own quieter interests. the work gave me strength.

by the time i got to grad school, most people were talking about the death of painting, so when i brought up dove, hartley, ryder, and eventually forrest bess, in class, the assumption on the part of everyone else was that these artists were no longer relevant - not because they made work that was more than 5 years old, but because within the overall conversation of the moment, there was no room for work that did not fit in...

without consciously choosing to do so, i have, more often than not, ended up drifting towards what is commonly known as "the periphery" to find the things that move me. perhaps the "periphery gene" is what got me into the la punk scene in 1979, or perhaps it was the punk scene that birthed such a gene within me, but either way, it got me thinking that the outside tended to be a lot more interesting than the inside. i can't imagine anyone deciding to be an artist because they are looking for a lifetime of obscurity, but on the other hand i cannot imagine anyone wanting to be an artist so they can be rich and famous...

when i look at this little catalog of paintings that jack smith made a year before i was born, i get excited for a number of reasons - but most of all because the paintings feel as if they are his own, and as a group of works, they seem to be quietly mining their own territory. of course, there is a level of sadness knowing that in 6 years of art school and 20 years of associating with artists, historians, academics, etc. i've never seen smith's work, nor seen, nor heard, any reference to it - but so many of the artists i'm interested in are also rarely mentioned. i experienced this from the other side of things when teaching last year and my students had never heard of william s. burroughs, brion gysin, harry partch, or even charles burchfield.

smith's painting history - a consistent search through an inconsistent visual language - suggests a continual striving towards experimentation rather than signature, and in that i begin to wonder if such a life plan guarantees the periphery, and hence, a periphery's audience.

what i love about a periphery's audience, as opposed to a mainstream audience, is that a periphery's audience tends to be like a group of geeky record collectors, arguing over the work and wanting to mine it for all it will offer, and then some. the love tends to be dedicated and long term. a mainstream audience moves from passion to boredom quickly, is dedicated to no one, and tends to be excited by or arguing over one's stature and/or genius...

and so i wonder how jack smith would feel knowing that 50 years later, an artist finds his work compelling enough to spend some time thinking about it, and trying to bring it back into the conversation. over the past week or so, i've picked up this little booklet and marveled at what i can glean of the inner workings of the pictures, and they've begun to seep into me. through these few images, and smith's own text, his work has become part of my own inner conversation, and hence has truly inspired me.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

when rainbows become bowrain...

my exhibition at pomona college, when words become forms, will close on december 19. because of the scale of bowrain - a large installation work, this might be your only chance to experience it for a long while... the sound, sculpture, and hand drawn films that make up the piece, were all birthed from a tiny notational sketch by buckminster fuller. fuller's drawing was used as a score towards most of the compositional decisions within the piece. all of the footage is in "real time", and the images of just the films are the actual projection footage...

for more info click here

for those of you who think an embedded video means i'm going to start performing with a laptop, never fear, it took me a number of frustrating hours to export the video without it looking like a broken old scoreboard... needless to say, videos will most likely NOT occur here on a regular basis.

nonetheless, i'm hoping the video will enable the far away folks to see/hear a bit of what i did on my summer "vacation", and for those of you who are local, perhaps it will inspire you to take the drive out to pomona... and if you do, don't miss the incredible bas jan ader show nearby.

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Sunday, December 05, 2010

talkin bout a book...

i was recently invited to do a guestpost on one of my favorite design blogs - youhavebeenheresometime. david john has asked a number of different art/design people to write about a book that inspires them in some way, and you can click here to see what i chose...


Friday, December 03, 2010

when the other gorky paints stillness and silence

there were clouds everywhere now, and the rafts looked as though they had stopped floating and were standing motionless in that concentrated black water, crushed down by heavy, dark-gray mounds of clouds that, falling from the sky, had obstructed the path. the river looked like a bottomless pit, girded on all sides by hills reaching up to the sky and cloaked in a close shroud of mist. it was oppressively quiet all around and the water, as though waiting for something, splashed gently against the rafts. a lot of sorrow and a sort of shy questioning could be detected in that plaintive sound, the only audible one in the night and the one that made the stillness even more marked.


two voices tore the silence of the night, rousing and shaking it, now blending into one dense note as rich as the sound of a big brass tuba, now rising to a falsetto, and they floated in the air, faded and died away. the silence again succeeded.

two paragraphs from maxim gorky's story "on the rafts".

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