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Someone I know received a cyber-postcard from a friend in Europe, captioned "New York 2006." (To view, click here.) The first thing you notice in this gag rendition of the Manhattan skyline is the big mosque in the center, roughly where the WTC towers were. Next you notice that there lots of minarets mingled with Western skyscrapers. The last you notice is the boat basin in the foreground--is this even New York? Obviously some Europeans are enjoying a little Photoshop humor at our expense, spinning a fantasy that is either vengeful or utopian, depending on how you look at it. The revenge fantasy is obvious: that we not only "lost the war" on terrorism, but surrendered to bin Laden, and our new Islamic masters have been gradually imposing their architecture on us. The utopian fantasy is that we saw the error of our ways, and adopted the architecture of the people we formerly exploited. (Yeah, right.)
Yet for either version to work, an "old world order" of city planning must still be in place. The theoretician Paul Virilio sees something very different looming on the horizon: "...I will underline that terrorism has just inaugurated an anti-cities strategy. This means that all towers are today threatened. Instead of being a place of dominion, as the dungeons of the past, the tower has become a place of weakness: vertically, it is henceforth the equivalent of the outer wall which the artillery blew up...." (Thanks to Jim's log for the quote.) The Japanese, who know something about collapsing cities, have been thinking along these lines for years, at least in their fantasy lives. In the 1995 anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, "Tokyo 3" has skyscrapers that sink into the ground whenever the city is threatened from the air (which is about every other episode). Not only do they sink, they continue downward in rectangular silos and emerge upside down on the roof of a "geofront," which is an enormous cavern with another city on its floor. Below is a view inside the geofront, after the buildings have been lowered:
In this scenario, Virilio's dungeon once again becomes a place of dominion, and the city doesn't have to give up its beloved skyscrapers!
Here's the Artforum.com blurb on Rodney Graham's show at 303 Gallery: "The primary work in this show, Phonokinetoscope, 2001, recreates a bicycle ride taken by Dr. Albert Hofmann through Berlin's Tiergarten on April 19, 1943. Before hopping on his bike, Hofmann, a chemist researching ergot alkaloids, swallowed a quarter milligram of the then new compound LSD-25. Later he would write that it dramatically altered his 'acoustic and optical perceptions.' Graham's film, complete with bike ride, LSD (which he washes down with coffee from a vintage thermos), and music composed and sung by the artist, mercifully avoids any overt psychedelia. Instead, it focuses on subtle interconnections and slippages between visual and aural perception, offering instances where sight and sound merge, as when the wheeze of the film projector matches the visual rhythm of a playing card hitting the spokes of a spinning bicycle wheel."
Actually none of the above is precisely true. The 16 mm film loop is synchronized with an LP recording of a song by Graham, a kind of folk-metal ballad in the John Cale/Nick Drake/Syd Barrett mold. As the song begins, Graham is already on his bike. He pedals through the park, stops to stare fixedly at a statue, and rides across a bridge in reverse-motion--an homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the press release reminds us. The playing card in the spokes of his bike, anchored with a wood clothespin, suggests he's regressed to a childlike (or dork-like) state. The lyrics to the song are as dumb as they are poignant:
Who is it that does not love a tree?
I planted one, I planted three.
Two for you and one for me.
You're the kind of girl that fits into my world...
You're the kind of girl that fits into my world...
Finally, at the end of the song, he sits down, and with power chords climaxing on the soundtrack, eats a square of blotter and stares entranced at the clothespin and the playing card, a Queen of Diamonds (as in Lucy in the Sky with...?). Of course, since the piece is a loop, you could interpret the end as the beginning, and imagine the film as a trip that lasts an eternity. EXCEPT Graham has deliberately made it possible for any idiot to walk into the gallery and lift the the tone arm off the LP, which stops the song and disconnects the "looper," bringing the film--which people are watching in a different room from the one with the turntable--to a sudden, jarring halt. The woman at the desk said many viewers have gotten angry when this happens.
The image below, a Kelly Freas (or Freas-ish) jacket illustration for Philip K. Dick's 1965 novel Dr. Bloodmoney, hails from a near-comprehensive gallery of PKD covers (thanks to dratfink for pointing it out). Of the wide variety of scanned, scuffed editions on display, the Ace Books covers from the mid-'60s consistently score highest in originality and emotional impact (in addition to Bloodmoney, The Simulacra also rocks). Can you imagine an illustration like the one below appearing today in a grocery store rack? It's just too weird, lonely, and raw by today's standards of bookselling. The hand-drawn letters add a hint of Strangelovian zaniness to the ghastly scene, especially the cartoon Fat Boy (or is it Little Man?) around the word "bomb." The flying man possibly merges two characters in the novel: Walt Dangerfield, an astronaut trapped in an orbiting space capsule, reading Of Human Bondage to an entertainment-starved populace after WWIII, and Dr. Bluthgeld, a Nazi scientist who emerges as a strange, elemental being in Marin County, where the book's action takes place.
A more recent novel threading its way through a Dickian, post-disaster cosmos is Jonathan Lethem's excellent Amnesia Moon. Also set in Northern California (but ranging east as far as Wyoming), Lethem's book keeps alluding to a past "crisis event," the particulars of which no one is sure of except to say that "everything changed" (shades of 9/11). People move in and out of each other's dream-worlds, Palmer Eldritch-style, with each scenario offering a different interpretation of what life would be like after a world-shattering disaster. One character imagines living on varmints in a Mad Max-like desert; another envisions a suburban dystopia of endless government testing and surveillance; yet another fights a losing war-of-attrition against an alien hive creature. Or are these really dreams? (Annoying personal synchronicity reference: a copy of Amnesia, which obliquely mentions Bloodmoney, was bought by yours truly at the World Trade Center bookstore a few days before 9/11. Cue theremin.)
The AFL-CIO says that "not one dime" of Congress's $15 billion airline bailout will go to laid-off workers. The executives, of course, will be able to continue to live in the lifestyle to which they've grown accustomed. Here's a modest, utopian proposal, which would benefit taxpayers and restore a measure of economic sanity to the country. Henceforth, all private companies that receive federal money (not just airlines) will have an "executive de-incentive" mechanism in place. For every worker laid off, a $1000 benefit to that worker will be deducted directly from the CEO's annual income (including stock options, dividends, salary, and benefits). So if a CEO lays off 10,000 workers, that CEO makes $2 million that year instead of $3 million. This will be a hardship for management, of course: the president of the company may not be able to build that swimming pool this year and his kid may have to go to Thomas Edison High instead of Choate. To which most of us would say, boo-hoo. And bear in mind, this isn't socialism--it wouldn't be mandatory for all companies, only those who expect to be supported by taxpayers...Hold on, someone's at the door... It's Ashcroft's goons! Holy smoke, they're taking me away!!!
Images, even abstract images, or maybe especially abstract images, take on added resonance from their surrounding cultural and political settings. Matt Chansky's Who's Afraid, 2001 (color image below, or click here for a larger version), created in the aftermath of the WTC disaster, might have a had a different reading a year ago--assuming the piece could travel back in time and be divorced from the moment it was produced, which is admittedly a big assumption. The little arrow to the left might have been described as a "cursor," the balloon of static an "information haze." That reading is complicated, of course, because the cursor has the archaic, incandescent feel of a carnival barker's arrow and the corpuscular "haze" belongs more to the bio-lab than cyberspace. But forget all that art-critical quibbling: at this particular moment the arrow can only be an airplane and the "static" a fireball. Put most of the TV-watching world on the psychiatrist's couch and that's what they'd see.
My painting Visceratecture (click here to view) similarly dovetails with the moment in inevitably political ways. What might have been a proud symbol of modernity 80 years ago, when Joseph Stella painted his headlong, high-speed view through the Brooklyn Bridge, has acquired an edge of surgical, Japanimation creepiness. To paraphrase a somewhat ghoulish quote from Survival Research Laboratories' founder Mark Pauline, "The perfect marriage of technology and the human form is death." The struts and girders of our idealized modern Architecture become intertwined with disconnected gobbets of flesh, while dead center, the womb becomes a techno-totemic figure yielding blankness and annihilation.
Much more uncanny, however, is Claire Corey's 2b5a, (click here to view) which was painted a few days before the sky fell here in New York. In an email dated September 5, I described the painting as "a cyber-rendition of Franz Marc's Fighting Forms with one form being the grid." Now it's difficult to see it as anything but a skyscaper with acrid, toxic smoke hemorrhaging out the side. Even the bold, intoxicating baby blues and purples fail to soften this image of collapsing, fragmenting modernity. Like Nostradamus (minus a few centuries), Corey saw the future, a reminder that artists are, as Ezra Pound observed, "the antennae of the race." Maybe we are, but with all the impact of a pair of foil-wrapped bunny ears.
This article in the Guardian reminds us that World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki also designed the Pruitt-Igoe towers, a public housing project that was so unpopular it was imploded on national TV in 1972. For architect and theorist Charles Jencks, the Pruitt-Igoe tear-down was a turning point in architectural history, signaling the end of deterministic, Cartesian Modernism and the beginning of postmodern eclecticism. The article describes the WTC towers as "respected rather that loved," but even that seems generous. The towers were hideously banal; the only thing they had going for them was intimidating scale.
On the sheer, perverse un-naturalness of skyscrapers, J. G. Ballard's mid '70s novel High Rise comes to mind. Ballard envisions attacks not from without but within, as war breaks out among the upper and lower strata of an enormous, sealed-in, glass-and-concrete residential building. Instead of office-workers racing to the lower floors, the book describes a violent quest by lower-floor residents to reach, and conquer, the top of the building, where the elite-of-the-elite dwell. The book is a dark, Lord of the Flies-type parable, rather than a tale of camaraderie and heroism such as we've seen in the aftermath of the WTC disaster, but the point is it's hard to think about huge, hermetic, man-made structures without thinking about related cataclysmic scenarios. Big buildings are a real estate necessity in super-dense NY, but no one should be romanticizing (or vowing to rebuild) Yamasaki's twin follies.
CNN has its banner in place: "America's New War." It's back to the glory days of '91 for the network, as it is for Bush Junior, who was doing pretty poorly his first few months after stealing the election but now gets to walk around in his daddy's combat boots. For the few who are disgusted by all the war talk, please check out counterpunch.org, which has sane, worried observations about the coming national security state, speculation that CNN's footage of Palestinians cheering may be a recycled shot from '91 (since retracted), and excerpts of war cries and other jingoistic insanity from Congress and the press.
I watched the second World Trade Center tower collapse from a friend's sixth floor apartment window. It was very surreal and scary: it disappeared in seconds.
I can't watch TV or listen to the radio anymore--Day One was news; Day Two it's all platitudes and jingoism, with "America Under Attack" graphics and theme music. The 24-hr. news radio station WINS has a sickening montage they play every half hour or so, of professionally edited sound clips from yesterday: (Dirge-like musical chords under) "Oh my god, the building's collapsing!" "There were bodies falling..." "I saw people linked arm in arm..." (Little girl's voice): "Why did they have to die?" (Actually that last bit is probably from the sound library, or maybe it's the station owner's daughter.)
In an early speech, Bush referred to the terrorists as "cowards": uh, I don't think so. Those acts took nerves of steel and utter conviction that the US was an enemy.
The conservative columnist David Horowitz says "America is in denial that much of the world hates us, and will continue to hate us. Because we are prosperous, and democratic and free." They hate us, all right, but it's because we're perceived as a bully and an empire-builder; they (rightly) abhor the corruption and repression of our client states (Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, etc.). Personally, I think we just paid a price for the cynical realpolitik we've practiced in the Middle East: one minute we're propping up Saddam, the next minute he's our sworn enemy, etc. It's all about the oil, isn't it? We act like we're entitled to it, so we can drive SUVs and run our air conditioners around the clock.
Here's an interesting quote from Michael Zanini, a graduate fellow at the RAND corporation, from a Salon interview: "Bin Laden actually issued a declaration of war against the U.S. in the mid-1990s. For his organization, the larger aim is to liberate the holy sites. Their problem is the U.S. military occupation of the countries of the greater Middle East. They want the Middle East to be free of unbelievers, among other things. And they probably also have an opposition to U.S. hegemony worldwide. They've declared war, and up to this point, they've targeted government assets and infrastructure: U.S. embassies and the destroyer USS Cole. That's U.S. government property, which is what an army would target."
Another friend has been listening to the call-in shows, lest he be out of touch with the Real America: he says it's all "let's kill the towel-heads." Great.