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The end of the year is approaching, and with critics everywhere publishing their Top Ten lists, I decided to do a narrative wrap-up of stuff I obsessed about in 2001. Organized into the broad categories of "film & TV," "art," "books," "politics," and "music," these events (or things) didn't necessarily happen (or come into existence) during the past year--in the true solipsistic weblog spirit, the only common thread is that they "happened" to yours truly.
Politics. You would have thought that after the Gulf War, when Mr. Cheney used his newfound contacts with the Saudi sheiks to obtain lucrative business contracts for Halliburton while ailing veterans got the shaft, that we'd be a lot more skeptical about rolling out the American War Machine abroad. All it took was one day of (admittedly cataclysmic) mayhem to turn us back into a country of howling football fans, endorsing whatever dubious and unnecessary plans our unelected leaders proposed. I've been enormously thankful for three websites since 9/11, which served as a kind of reality check against the Official Media Version of things: the left/progressive CounterPunch and Cursor and the libertarian site Antiwar.com. The brave dissenting voices on those pages reassured me that the entire country hadn't gone nuts.
Books. In an earlier post, I mentioned that I bought Jonathan Lethem's post-apocalyptic novel Amnesia Moon at the World Trade Center bookstore a few days before 9/11. Further upping my personal "disaster synchronicity factor" (I warned you this would be solipsistic), I also read three novels by Greg Bear over the summer that had a weirdly prescient bearing (no pun intended) on 9/11 events. Blood Music features a frightening trip up the North Tower of the World Trade Center by a young Brooklyn girl who is the sole survivor of a nation-engulfing plague (the tower itself eventually dissolves into organic goo). In the The Forge of God and its sequel Anvil of Stars, Bear deals with the ultimate terrorist event: the reduction of Earth by hostile ETs to a ring of pulverized rock orbiting the Sun. Forge describes, among other things, the ineffectual response to looming global catastrophe by a Bible-thumper in the White House who essentially loses his marbles, while Anvil explores the morality of revenge, as the few survivors who managed to escape Earth head across the galaxy in search of the planet-killers. Published in 1987, Forge vividly captures the unreal-but-doom-laden feel of the mid-'80s, when Reagan was ramping up the nuclear fear factor. It's great to have the Republicans back in office, isn't it?
Film and TV. Japanese animation has been a subject of much enjoyment and "independent study" this year. It blows me away that an entire country prefers moving drawings to live action shows for their prime time entertainment. I'd love to live in a nation where a great mystical work like Princess Mononoke isn't just the highest-grossing animated film of all time, but the highest grossing film, and where subversive psychodramas involving cyborgs and folkloric demons are discussed at the water cooler. (Instead, I live in a country that adores Titanic and Survivor. Ookay.) I've watched and rewatched tapes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, which was a hit series in Japan several years ago, and continue to find in it new levels of psychological complexity and political paranoia. I love the series' mood of melancholy, and its use of subtle visual details (rather than explanatory chatter) to move the story along. I've learned a lot about it and other shows from Susan Napier's book Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke. Napier, a professor of Japanese lit at the U. Of Texas, provides a cultural context that helps explain the themes of mechanization, sex, and apocalyptic feeling that run through so much anime. For my own thoughts on the 2001 rerelease of Akira, please check out this recent post.
Art. 2001 was a banner year for shows involving "the computer"; gradually this device that has touched every aspect of contemporary life is making its way into the last pocket of medieval resistance--the art world. Right now there are several camps operating: (1) Artists who aren't giving up painting, sculpture, photography, and installation art, but feel the need to "respond" in some way to the computer (for an excellent round-up of so-called digitally-inspired shows in 2001, please see this post by my friend Hector Pitts); (2) "Net artists," doing the types of interactive and data-crunching projects (frequently covered by New York Times cyber-critic Matthew Mirapaul) that are conceptually interesting but make little concession to the needs and pleasures of meat space (a few things in this category are good, of course, such as the jodi.org website and Michael Ensdorf's excellent video piece Momentary Distractions); and finally, (3) Fine art-trained artists who question the logic and look of the computer, while at the same time using it to make "decelerated" objects for contemplation in a gallery environment (I include myself in this somewhat paradoxical category, and this weblog will be devoted, off-and-on, to other artists with the same concerns).
Music. I spent most of 2000 dj-ing at a bar in lower Manhattan, and gave myself a crash course in recent electronic dance music. I started out the year playing a lot of hiphop and electro but by the fall I had settled into more pub-friendly deep house and 2-step garage discs. I'm still keeping up in 2001, but my consumption dropped off once I stopped receiving my weekly cut of the bar (after 10 months, I was worn out, so I retired in Nov. of 2000--for now). One of my most interesting "discoveries" was Dusseldorf producer Stefan Schwander, who records as Antonelli Electr. and rhythm_maker. His tracks are minimal but eminently listenable; I'm astonished by his ability to get such warmth and depth out of fairly simple loops. And the production is exquisite--every beat and chime feels wrapped in velvet. Although I like a variety of dance subgenres, I prefer Detroit (Juan Atkins)-style tracks and German "deep minimal techno house" for home listening; this is music that thrives both in the foreground and the background.
This page is proud to announce that the Doris Piserchia Website and the Tom Moody Web Site (the "main site" link above) have recently moved to Digital Media Tree, after originally being hosted on a server that has famously gone bankr$pt. While the emphasis at the Tree is on individual (and group) weblogs, the DP and TM sites are organized as traditional, fixed-structure websites; both are being updated regularly, however. Also, the following have been added to the TM site: the full text, with additional images, of the Art Papers article "Palo Alto Dreamin': Towards a New Digital Expression(ism)," and an "author's cut" of a review of Nina Katchadourian's "Mended Spiderwebs" show at Debs & Co., which appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of Artforum.
My painting archive has recently been revamped. I've created thumbnail pages for the year 2001 and the years 1996-1999, so clicking through the slideshows is less of a stab in the dark. Most of the actual artwork, by the way, is done using Paintbrush, a kind of toy program that shipped with Windows pre-'95 (the current version, MSPaint, is vastly inferior). Raw material in the form of spheres, dots, and scribbles is printed out on the EPSON 2000P and then assembled by hand into collages with a quirky physical presence, unfortunately not always translatable into jpegs. I'm interested in combining outdated styles (cubism, AbEx, color field painting) with outdated computer technology to create weirdly ahistorical hybrids, clunky but (hopefully) ingratiating.
In his book on rave culture, Generation E, Simon Reynolds bemoans the inadequacy of rock criticism to describe/interpret dance music: "The materials with which the techno auteur works--timbre/texture, rhythm, and space--are precisely the elements that rock criticism ignores in favor of meaning, which is extracted almost exclusively from close study of lyrics and persona. Rock critics use techniques borrowed from literary criticism or sociology to interpret rock in terms of the singer's biography/neurosis or the music's social relevance. Devoid of text, dance music and ambient are better understood through metaphors from the visual arts: 'the soundscape,' 'aural decor,' 'a soundtrack for an imaginary movie,' 'audio-sculpture.'"
If only visual arts criticism were concerned with talking intelligently about "timbre/texture, rhythm, and space"! Unfortunately art critics do the same thing with art that Reynolds says rock critics do with dance music: they ignore the perceptual phenomena and start hunting for texts. If they're not up to the job of supplying verbal equivalents for visual experience (and most of them aren't), they're likely to dismiss the art as vapid eye candy. Gradually artists, too, give up, and begin to make work with "text," either imbedded in the piece so critics can "discover" it, or overtly expressed so that it can be parroted in reviews. A sign of the mass resignation of artists to curatorial/critical preferences is the December Artforum cover, which shows thumbnails of the "Best of 2001." It is telling that out of fifteen images, the cover features only one painting (by Luc Tuymans) and one sculpture/installation (by Thomas Hirschhorn) and the rest of it's basically photography.
Writers feel more comfortable talking about photography because it's a storytelling medium, as well as the language of "the media." Yet some of the most interesting artworks being made are closer to electronic dance music--abstract, evocative experiences that one could spend days coming up with metaphors to describe. (Examples are some of the digital paintings discussed elsewhere this log; the logic even extends to more traditional abstract painting by Albert Oehlen, Carl Ostendarp, and Sarah Morris--all of whom have excellent shows up in Manhattan right now.) This isn't "stupid" work--if anything it's smarter because of the convolutions it goes through to defeat precise description. But that's its Catch-22; the better it succeeds in rendering the viewer speechless, the less likely it is to find an intelligent critical advocate.