Saturday, March 27, 2010

What is Visual Music? Paul Friedlander

What is Visual Music?

I am an experimentalist, seeking new forms.

In this illustration, you see a spinning string vibrating in harmony, this description sounds like a musical instrument, but it is a light sculpture. The vibrating form is a superposition of the second and fourth harmonic: a 'visual chord'.
You can read more about my light sculptures in Art Background. I am involved in developing light sculptures and new uses for the computer creating 'visual music'.
Here is my understanding of three kinds of visual music.
First Kind: Visual Music is a means of converting music to images using a system or set of rules which can be implemented as a machine or computer code. There are screen savers which respond to sound, but apart from synchronisation of sound and image, what do they do? How can they express the content of the music? This idea has been around longer that either the computer or the 'sound light converter' found in night clubs. Some famous people have speculated about this, Goethe for one, and Beethoven also was known to have produced a table of equivalence between musical key and color. Beethoven and Goethe did not agree as to which color corresponded to which key and the whole process of establishing a 'sound light' relationship is an ongoing and unfulfilled activity.
Second Kind: Visual Music is a means of expressing music in visual form requiring the active involvement of an artist, designer or director to interpret the music and find the means to express it visually. This is perhaps too narrow a definition since many of the events and happenings of the 60s involved a collaboration between different forms: theatre, dance music, etc. where no single element prevailed but the performance was a kind of Visual Music. This is also where the word multimedia originated. Rock videos could be said to fall into this category but the most wonderful examples are more abstract and can be spell binding, awesome even. The presentation of a Pink Floyd concert is a perfect example of this second form .
Third Kind: Visual Music has no relationship with music as such, although it maybe viewed with or juxtaposed with music. Visual music is about creating visual relationships which change over time. It is primarily about abstract qualities of movement or changing form or color. This is the kind of visual music closest to my own sensibilities, it is perhaps the most illusive or least understood form. The earliest proponents used mechanical or optical means. The Whitney Brothers started making what would now look like psychedelic (before the word had been invented) animation's in the 50s and 60s. The first great creation of Visual Music to receive widespread notice by the public was the Stargate sequence in the movie 2001. In the 70s, artists like Tom DeWitt and Richard Monkhouse started creating special analogue electronic 'image synthesisers'. More recently with the advent of desk top computers, there has been an explosion of activity in this area. But much of this work is animation which is restricted by the fact that it must have a beginning, middle and end. I prefer a form without time limits, where you can watch for a minute or an hour, it all depends on your state of mind. No beginnings, no endings, no fixed form, ever changing, every time you return to the piece, something slightly different happens.

Before I knew the term Visual Music, with light, light shows and light sculptures I sought to dematerialise, to render transparent and weightless, to create form without gravity, a floating state, abstract, in short what I am here calling Visual Music. Most intriguingly in my work with spinning string, I discovered forms that echoed the behaviour of musical harmony. Intentionality is not my predominant artistic mode, we discover through our work, only after the work 'speaks to us' do we understand our motivation. The string 'spoke to me' and I understood my purpose in creating dematerialised form. The vibrational forms of the string was the work 'speaking to me' but what did it say? I am still interpreting its message but this is what I have understood so far.
The term experimental is used in art to indicate working with new forms. With the Spinning String Light Sculptures I had found a much closer connection to the concept of experiment in physics, I had discovered a new physical phenomena.
In science experiment is used to test theory, but what then is my theory? It is that art is close to science. You could simplify it by saying: physics is about physical forces, art is about mental forces. More generally there is something deeper going on in science and art. Einstein observed that a theory needs to be expressed elegantly. A beautiful equation is more powerful because it can be worked with more effectively. Its elegance gives it utility: Form follows Function was a founding principle of modernism and although we live in a post modern age, the lessons taught by modernists are still relevant, particularly when considered in the abstract. This is not about style or functionality, at issue is the underlying common nature of science and art. In this context, Visual Music throws 'light' on the subject.
The observation that art and science share a common purpose is not new, Leonardo DaVinci would have said much the same and even at the dawn of history Pythagoras declared that numbers were the underlying structure of everything. However this is not a matter of repackaging classical concepts in a contemporary context. Our understanding of the scientific method has undergone a paradigm shift within the last generation. Science is no longer perceived as seeking immutable truths, its method uses human imagination, searching for 'models', which explain and provide understanding. Scientific theories (or models) may not resemble art works but they are creations of the human mind and are subject of strong feelings within the scientific community. While orthodox theories are taught 'as if true', new theories always come along to upset the established truths in a way which mirrors the development of art. This insight has yet to be fully appreciated by the scientific community, let alone the World at large. It is important for artists to understand this, both out of intellectual curiosity and because it is directly relevant to the their own creative process. We are all engaged in a common creative pursuit.
Pythagoras conviction that the universe was made of numbers took its inspiration from music, but more than that, it was a mystical revelation, of which I shall have more to say shortly. The Greeks understood the principles of harmony and those principles remained unchanged until the arrival of the tempered scale which was a revolution as radical as Relativity overturning Classical Mechanics. In the 20th century composers have used mathematical methods for a new purpose. They used the formalities of maths to create a new kind of music which does not repeat: "generative music". Terry Riley was an early exponent of this minimalist approach. He came to London to perform his seminal work, 'A Rainbow in Curved Air' with the Electric Symphony Orchestra, while I was their lighting designer. I find Terry's approach to composition very close to my own intuitions about the way I want to create visual music.
The use by artists and musicians of science and mathematics is a step towards greater power. The purpose of science is to explain and provide understanding but science is much more than a dry process of reasoning, over and over again it has amazed us and transformed our lives. For art to throw more light on the human condition this will be achieved by a combination of passion and reason... although much of the reasoning may be hidden in the finished artwork. Our eyes, minds and hearts will be opened to the fullest by the new experience. The potential is there, we will be more than surprised by the results. Unpredictable, but I hazard the guess that the deepening fusion of art and science will not be artists in white lab coats, quite the contrary, we shall be moved from disbelief to be overwhelmed and astonished by the vision of the future that will unfold.
It is this sense of astonishment, wonder, magic which remains central to my continuing activities as an artist. I am a seeker in search of miracles. It is an abiding misunderstanding of our age that there is some kind of contradiction or battle between art and science, or science and religion. Far too many scientists have launched futile attacks on the magical and irrational, too many evil technologies have been developed from scientific discoveries. Too many people from what was once called the left, the libertarians, the dreamers, the idealists in search of a better World have denounced science. Don't be hasty in your judgement I ask. As artists and visionaries we must rise above such skirmishes, and recognise the power and potential in both the rational and magical. There has always been black and white in magic and so it is with science and technology. It is up to us through our own experience and understanding to discover the positive.
As children, we all have an intuitive understanding of this magical aspect to life. Children are also very good at asking questions. They are playful mystics and questioning scientists all at once. It is this child like quality I seek to encourage within myself and others. The sense of excitement is the fuel of imagination. Life can be like a beautiful beach where we all play. The sea shells we find as children are full of this energy. As artists our creations can absorb this energy from our enthusiasm and concentration on the act of creation. If we are lucky, they come to life, extra energy flows from an unknown source. It is then, when the work itself surprises us that we know that we are really onto something.

above copied from:

Friday, March 26, 2010


(In the years 1994 till 2001 Ruud Janssen interviewed several artists by different communication-forms. This is interview #43 with Dick Higgins. The Interview took place like a correspondence where both traveled and also used different media like typewriters, computers, handwritten letters and e-mails. 3 Years after the Interview Dick Higgins died of a Heart attack. A short article and CV can be found at the bottom of the interview, published in the New York Times. This Interview is reproduced by Fluxus Heidelberg Center with the permission of TAM-Publications - Netherlands. The dates that questions and answers are? sent/received are mentioned to make the time-line visible)

(c)2003 - FHC 0304

Started on: 4-6-1995

Ruud Janssen : Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?

Reply on: 3-7-1995

Dick Higgins: Dear Senior Janssen - I got involved in the mail-art network in July 1959 shortly after I met Ray Johnson in June. He sent me a marzipan frog, a wooden fork and three small letters in wood, which I correctly misunderstood. I sent him some wild mushrooms which I had gathered, and they arrived at his place on Dover Street just before they decomposed.

RJ : Was this mail-art in the beginning just fun & games or was there more to it?

Reply on 27-7-1995

(Together with his answer Dick Higgins sent me his large, 46 pages long, Bio/Bibliography and a contribution to my Rubberstamp Archive, a stamp-sheet with some of his old and new stamps printed on)

DH: Indeed it was fun to communicate with Ray. But it was a new kind of fun. I had never encountered anyone who could somehow jell my fluid experiences of the time when I was doing visual poetry (thus the letters), food and conceptual utility (perhaps I had shown him my "Useful Stanzas" which I wrote about then. But what had he left out? Nature - thus my sending of the wild mushrooms, collecting and studying which was an ongoing interest (I was working on them with John Cage, an important friend of Ray's as of mine).

As for rubber stamps, in 1960 when Fluxus was a-forming my home was in New York at 423 Broadway on the corner with Canal Street and my studio was at 359 Canal Street a few blocks away. Canal Street was known for its surplus dealers (some are still there) including stationers, and one could buy rubber stamps there for almost nothing - and we did! I had already made some rubber stamps through Henri Berez, a legendary rubber maker on Sixth Avenue, long gone but he was the first I knew who could make photographic rubber stamps - Berez made a magnesium, then a Bakelite and finally the rubber stamp, And I blocked the magnesiums and used them for printing as well. I had stamps of musical notation symbols made and also of my calligraphies, etc. At an auction in 1966 when he moved to Europe I also bought Fluxartist George Brecht's rubber stamps (mostly of animals) which he used starting ca. 1960; I used those to make a bookwork of my own, From the Earliest Days of Fluxus (I Guess), which I think is in the Silverman Collection. Others of my rubber stamps are in the Archiv Sohm and perhaps Hermann Braun or Erik Andersch have some, I am not sure. I think there was an article on Fluxus rubber stamps in Lightworks - that must be listed in John Held Jr's Mail Art: an Annotated Bibliography (Mettuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1991) and/or in Jon Hendricks's Fluxus Codex (New York: Abrams, ca. 1992). I also composed some music using rubber stamps, notably Emmett Williams's ar/L'orecchio di Emmett Williams (Cavriago: Pari & Dispari, 1978).

?#060;/span>That's about all I can add to the rubber stamp thing at this time. It would be much more efficient for us if I send you my Bio/Bibliography which has facts that need not be endlessly repeated, so I am doing that under separate cover. The curious type face I used on that is one which I designed and named for Fluxmail Artist Ken "Kenster" Friedman, "Kenster."

RJ : Your Bio/Bibliography is quite impressive. The sentence on the first page: "I find I never feel quite complete unless I'm doing all the arts -- visual, musical and literary. I guess that's why I developed the term 'intermedia' , to cover my works that fall conceptually between these" , indicates you are always focussing on all kinds of media to express yourself. Which place has mail-art in this?

Reply on : 4-8-1995 , 29 degrees Celsius and about 85% relative humidity

(Together with his answer Dick Higgins sent me a poster with title "SOME POETRY INTERMEDIA" explaining metapoetries or how poetry is connected to many other art-forms. Published by Richard C. Higgins, 1976 , New York, USA)

DH : Yes, I am a "polyartist" - Kostelanetz's term for an artist who works in more than one medium, and some of these media themselves have meaningful gradations between them. Visual poetry lies between visual art and poetry, sound poetry lies between music and poetry, etc. But between almost any art and non-art media other intermedia are possible. What lies between theater and life, for instance? Between music and philosophy? In poetry I got into this in my "Some Poetry Intermedia" poster essay. If we take any art as a medium and the postal system as a medium, then mail art is the intermedium between these -

postal poetry, postal music, mail-art [visual variety], etc.

Some of these are more capable than others of the subversive function which I value in mail art - it bypasses the gallery world and the marketplace, so it becomes somehow immune to censorship. If used aggressively it can make a reactionary politician's life Hell. And it is not yet played out yet. For instance, while Fax art has no special characteristics (it is like monochromatic regular mail, "snail mail") what is e-mail art? Can't it subvert the rich folks' machines? Ruin their modems? Yet even that is a commonplace, once one has considered it. Little artists can do it. Its power is inherent in its medium. I can tell you stories of how the Poles of Klodsko tortured an East German bureaucrat who has banned a Mail art show in (then) East Berlin. I happened to be visiting there at the time and was involved in this.

But let's think about more positive areas. Please tell me about the spiritual aspects of mail art. How do you see that?

RJ : Yes, a nice try to end an answer with a question to me. I will send you some 'thoughts about mail-art' for you to read, but in this interview I would like to focus on YOUR thoughts and knowledge. I am in no hurry, so I would like to hear that story of how the Poles of Klodsko tortured this East German bureaucrat who banned this mail art show in East Berlin.....

Reply on 17-8-1995

DH : (today in 1843 Herman Melville signed abroad the frigate 'United States,' this began the journey that led to 'White-Jacket')

It must have been about 1988 and I was traveling through Poland, reading and performing with a friend, the critic and scholar Piotr Rypson. Our travels brought us to Klodsko down in the beak of Galicia to where a group of unofficial Polish artist had gathered to discuss what to do since the Mail Art Conference which Robert Rehfeldt had organized in East Berlin had, at the last moment, been canceled by some bureaucrat. It was a final and irrevocable decision the bureaucrat had made, finalized by his official rubber stamp besides his signature.

This was a great disappointment to these artists who had very little opportunity to meet personally with each other, especially across international borders, and to exchange ideas. However these artists were Poles, from the land of the liberum votum , and they had six hundred years experience at protesting. They made a list of things to do. Having access to some things in America which were problematic in Poland, I was asked to have four exact facsimiles of the bureaucrat's rubber stamp made up and to send one to each of four addresses I was given, one was an official one in the Department of Agriculture in the DDR and the other three were in Poland. I was also asked to buy some homosexual and some Trotskyite magazines in the USA, to send them one at a time to the bureaucrat and, if possible, to subscribe in his name to these things. I did these things and also I appointed the bureaucrat an honorary member of my Institute for Creative Misunderstanding and sent an announcement of his appointment to Neues Deutschland, the main communist newspaper of the DDR.

For a few weeks it seemed as if nothing had happened. But then I received a long letter from Robert Rehfeldt in English (usually he wrote me in German) lecturing me on what a terrible thing it was to try to force a person to accept art work which he did not like. And a few weeks after that I received a post card from Rehfeldt auf deutsch saying "Fine - keep it up [mach weiter]."

In this story we can see the usefulness for using the mails on the positive side for keeping spirits up and for keeping contact with those one does not see, on the sometimes-necessary negative side for creating powerful statements which must have caused great problems for this bureaucrat. I have no idea who these people were to whom I sent the rubber stamps, but I can imagine that they were forging the bureaucrat's signature onto all sorts of capricious papers and causing great consternation within official circles of the DDR. For me this story tells well one of the main uses of Mail Art.

Perhaps it also suggests why Mail Art taken out of context can sometimes be such a bore. It has no particular formal value or novelty, especially when one has (as I have) been doing it for nearly forty years, so that mere documentation seems tendentious and egotistic. Would you want to only read about a great painting of the past? Wouldn't you rather see it and then, perhaps, read about it? Making good Mail Art is like making a souffl?- the timing is very very critical. Who wants to be told about a decade old souffl? And documenting the matter is not nearly so interesting as receiving and consuming it at precisely the right moment - with the right people too, I might add. It is an art of the utmost immediacy.

RJ : What was the reason for creating your "Institute for Creative Misunderstanding"?

Reply on 26-8-95 (Apollinaire born today)

(Besides his answer Dick Higgins also sent his poem "Inventions to make")

DH : Kara Ruud, For years I was struck by how little one understands of how one's work will be perceived by others. We can prescribe how others will see it at risk of discouraging them. Duchamp, when anyone would ask "does your piece mean this or that...?" would smile and usually say "yes," no matter how absurd the question. The impressionists thought they were dealing with light; we see their contribution is one of design along the way towards abstraction. The Jena Romantic poets of Germany saw themselves as applying the philosophies of Kant and Plato to their writings, but we see it as reviving the baroque and providing a healthy restorative emotional depth to their poetry which had often been lacking in the work of the previous generation. The same is true of Percy B. Shelley who knew his Plato well (and translated passages of Plato from Greek into English), but who in poems like "Lift not the painted veil" or "The sensitive plant" moves Plato's ideas into areas which Plato never intended to create a new entity of art-as-concealment. Harold Bloom, a famous academic critic in the USA, was, in the 1970's in books like The anxiety of influence, stressing the role of recent art as cannibalizing and deriving from earlier art. I was not satisfied with Bloom's models and preferred to extend them and misinterpret them myself along hermeneutic lines using a Gadamerian model; this you will find in a linear fashion in my book Horizons (1983) and in the forthcoming "Intermedia: Modernism since postmodernism" (1996). But a linear presentation does not satisfy me either; it does not usually offer grounds for projection into new areas and it focuses too much on the specifics of my own ratiocinations. To broaden my perspective I conceived of a community of artists and thinkers who could take conceptual models and, with good will (my assumption, like Kant's in his ethics), transform these models ?evoking not simply intellectual discourse but humor or lyrical effects which would otherwise not be possible. This is, of course, my Institute of Creative Misunderstanding. Into it I put a number of people with whom I was in touch who seemed to be transforming earlier models into new and necessary paradigms. I tried to organize a meeting of the institute, but could not get funding for it and realized that it might well be unnecessary anyway. I still use that Institute as a conceptual paradigm when necessary.

So I would not describe the Institute for Creative Misunderstanding as a "fake institute," as you did, so much as an abstract entity and process of existence which creates a paradigm of community of like-minded people by its very name and mentioning. Are you a member of the Institute, Ruud? Perhaps you are - it is not really up to me to say if you have correctly misunderstood it in your heart of hearts.

RJ : Who is to say if I am a member? But I sure like all those institutes and organizations that there are in the network. You spoke of the intention to organize a meeting. In the years 1986 and 1992 there were lots of organized meetings in the form of congresses. Is it important for (mail-) artists to meet in person?

Reply on 5-9-1995 (Cage born -1912)

DH : (laughing) Who's to say if you are a member? Why the group secretary, of course - whoever that is. Perhaps I am acting secretary and I say you are a member. Anyway, to be serious, the question of meetings is not answerable, I think, except in specific contexts. The events planned at Klodsko could not have been planned without the people being together; but at other times it would seem unnecessarily pretentious to bring them together - frustrating even, since most mail artists are poor and they would have to spend money to be present. At times this would be justified, but if it were simply a matter of pride or of establishing a place in some pecking order, well that would not be good.

Think of a camp fire. Shadowy figures are in conversation, laughing and talking; what they say makes sense mostly among themselves. A stranger wanders in and listens. The stranger understands almost nothing - to him what is said is all but meaningleess - and the part which he understands seems trivial to him. The stranger has two options: he can stay and learn why what is being said is necessary, or he can go away and suggest that all such campfires are silly and should be ignored or banned. Mail art is like that. I go to shows, and the work is arranged not by conversation but according to a curator’s skills of the past, as if these were drawings by Goya. But they aren't. Their meaning is more private, often contained in the facts and conditions of their existence more than in the art traditions to which they seem to belong. The show therefore doesn't work. Few do. But a show arranged chronologically of the exchanges among some specific circle mail artists - that would have a greater chance for an outsider to learn the language and love the medium. Wouldn't you like to see a show of the complete exchanges between, say, San Francisco's Anna Banana*1 and Irene Dogmatic (if there ever was such an exchange) than the 65th International Scramble of Mail Artists presented by the Commune di Bric- -Bracchio (Big catalog with lots and lots of names, but all works become the property of the Archivo di Bric- -Bracchio).

?#060;/span>*1 of course Anna has since moved to her native Vancouver, and I haven't heard of Irene Dogmatic in many a year)

Chance encounters among mail artists, meetings among small groups - oh yes, those are quite wonderful. But I don't usually see the point in large gatherings of mail artists. Actually, there haven't been many of them - thank goodness. Berlin would have been an exception, methinks.

As e'er- Dick (laughing) (Dicks signiture was placed here as a smiling face)

RJ : What is the first 'chance encounter' (as you call them) that comes up in your mind when I ask for a memory about such an event?

Reply on 18-9-1995

DH : By "chance encounters" I mean those meetings which could not have been anticipated or which take place on the spur of the moment. In on Wednesday I arrange to meet you the following Tuesday at 7:30

and if I am unable to sleep Monday night because of faxes from Europe arriving all night long Monday night and the cat is ill on Tuesday so that I must waste half the day at the veterinarian's office, you and I will have a very different kind of meeting from the situation of my meeting you in the post office and the two of us going to spend a few hours together talking things over, or if I say: "Look: I cooked too much food, please come over and help me eat it."

We have all had such meeting, no? Those meetings are the most productive, I think. Few mail artists (or any artists) can really control their own time, their own schedule. Only the rich can do that, if anyone

can. We are mostly poor and must depend on the schedules of others. But there are days when this is not true - days when it works perfectly to see someone. Ray Johnson was a master of this - he would call, "I am with (whoever), we're down the street from you. Can we come see you?" If yes - great. If not, one never felt locked into the situation.

That is how I never met Yves Klein. One night, perhaps in 1961, at 11:15 Ray phoned me from down the street and said that Yves Klein was with him and would like to meet me. I said I'd like to meet him too but I was in bed and it was a week-day. I had to go to work the next day. We agreed that I should meet Yves Klein the next time he came to new York. It didn't happen; Klein died instead.

?#060;/span>It is also how I met Alison Knowles, - Ray Johnson and Dorothy Podber and myself had dinner in Chinatown in New York and then they took me to Alison's loft nearby. I had met her briefly before that, but this time we got to talk a little. That was thirty-six years ago, and Alison and I are still together.

And so it goes -

RJ : Yes, and also the forms of communication are proceeding. To my surprise I noticed on your 'letterhead' that you have an e-mail address too. Are you now exploring the possibilities of the internet as well?

Reply on 20-10-1995 (sent on 11-10 from Milano Italy)

(Dick Higgins handwritten answer came from Milano, Italy, where he is preparing a retrospective show of his work.)

DH : Yes, "exploring" is the only possible word, since the internet is constantly changing. You can "know" yesterday's internet, but today's always contains new variables.

In the world of computers, most of the "information" is irrelevant, even to those who put it there. Few of us bother to download clever graphics since advertising has made us numb to those. I only download graphics if the text which I see really seems to need them. I need them no more than I need to watch show-offy gymnastic displays, divers or pianists who play Franz Liszt while blindfolded and balancing champagne glasses on their head. What I like on the "net" are three things:

1) Making contact with people whose contributions to the internet shows interest similar to my own. Far from being alienating, as others have said of the web and internet, I find this element a very positive and community-building factor. For instance, I enjoyed meeting on the internet a guy whom I'd met three years ago, a visual poet named Kenny Goldsmith, and had not seen since. Now he does "Kenny's page " -

< so /~kennyg/index.html> - where he creates links to anything in the new arts which excites him. It was like looking into someone else's library - a revelation, and one which I could use. It led me to meet him again in person, a real delight.

2) I cannot afford to buy the books I once could. But often I can download and print out things to read before going to bed. For an author, what a way to get one's work and ideas around! Why wait two

years for your book to appear, for your article to come out in some magazine which nobody can afford? Put it on the net and it is potentially part of the dialogue in your area of interest. Further, it tells

me not only what people are interested in, but what is going on - a John Cage conference , which interested me, was fully described on the net for instance - and it gives me access to everything from dictionaries, indexes and lists of words, people and events. I suppose a saboteur could list false information, and of course commercial interests can tell me about their stuff, but this only

sharpers my skeptical abilities - I can avoid their garbage with no more effect than on a commercial television set. I suspect the internet is a blow to the effectiveness of normal advertising.

3) As someone whose favorite art, books and literature are seldom commercially viable, I am happy to see how the internet actually favors the smaller organizations and media. If I access a big publisher's pages with ten thousands titles, I stop and quit almost at once - it takes too long. But a small publisher's page is often worth a glance. Further, the phenomenon of links gives an element of three - dimensionality to the internet. A book sounds interesting. I click on it and I see a few pages of it. This is like browsing in a wonderful book store. A good example is the pages for Avec, a small avant-garde

magazine and book publisher in California. I found it through a link on the Grist pages - < >. It's designed by the editor of Witz , a new arts newsletter (address: ). Perfect. Another good one is Joe de Marco's pages < > - full of fluxus things and theater. All this suggests new forms of distribution, which has always been a

problem for small publishers. If you can safely transmit credit information to an address on the internet, then, if you live in a small village as I do, it is as if you lived in a large city with an incredible book

store near you. Because of links, I do not see how big corporations can commercialize all this. My computer is black and white, I have no money to invest in their corporations, and their rubbish is easily avoided. Thanks to the internet, the damber kind of popular culture will probably begin to lose its strangle-hold on people's attention. Of course it will take time and other developments too, but the internet rips off the conservatives' three-piece suits, remakes them and gives them to us in a better form.

RJ : It seems like publishing is very important for you. In mail art a lot has been written about the boek "The Paper Snake" by Ray Johnson, which you published with Something Else Press. What was the story

behind this specific book?

reply on 27-10-1995 (internet)

DH: There is no doubt in my mind that Ray Johnson was one of the most valuable artists I've ever known. He was a master of the "tricky little Paul Klee-ish collage," as he modestly dismissed them; most of his

work of the late 1950's was collages in 8 1/2 x 11 format-roughly corresponding to the European A3. That was a time when Abstract Expressionism ("Tachisme") ruled the roost in America, and art was

supposed to swagger, lack humor, be big and important-looking. Johnson had rejected this long before, had, in the 1950's, made hundreds or thousand of postcard-size collages using popular imagery,

had also made big collages and then cut them up, sewn them together into chains, had buried the critic Suzi Gablik in a small mountain of them (alas, only temporarily), had printed various ingenious little

booklets and sent them off into the world, and, since there was no appropriate gallery for his work, had now taken to sending his collages out-along with assemblages in parcel post form. For example, a few days after I had startled Ray by throwing my alarm clock out the window, he sent me a box containing a marzipan frog, a broken clock and a pair of chopsticks, calling shortly thereafter to suggest that we go to Chinatown for dinner.

But Ray could write too. He was always interested in theater and performance, had picked up many ideas from the days when he and his friend Richard Lippold lived downtown in New York City on Monroe Street on the floor below John Cage (all of them friends also from Black Mountain College), and he wrote and sent out innumerable playlets, poems, prose constructions, etc.

I saw Ray around town for several months before I met him, which was at a 1959 concert where I asked him if he were Jasper Johns. "No," he said, "I'm Ray Johnson," we got to talking and soon to walking and not long afterwards to visiting. Years later, when I met Jasper Johns, in order to complete the symmetry, I asked him if he were Ray Johnson. I expected him to say, "You know I'm not-why do you ask?" Instead he said, acidly: "No." And he walked away.

Something Else Press was founded on the spur of the moment. First I did my book "Jefferson's Birthday/Postface" (1964). But before the thing was even printed, I decided the next book should be a

cross-section of the things Ray had sent me over the previous six years. So, having little room at my own place, I packed them all into two suitcases, visited my mother and spread everything out on her dining

table. I sorted the book into piles-performance pieces, poems, collages, things to be typeset, thing to be reproduced in Ray's writing-taking care to include at least some of each category. I knew the book would be hard to sell, so I didn't want to make it a Big Important Book; I chose the format of a children's book, set the texts in a smallish size of Cloister Bold (an old-fashioned Venetian face), decided on using two

colors to simulate four (which I could not have afforded), and then laid out the pages in a way which I felt would invite the reader to experience Ray's pieces as I did on receiving them. Ray, who had at first been displeased by the project, perhaps feeling it would lock him into a format too much, become very enthusiastic as the project developed. Where at first he had refused to title the book, later he called it "The Paper Snake" after a collage and print he had made. He also wanted the price to be "$3.47," for reasons I have never known (prices of that sort were always $3.48 or $3.98). And when, one winter day in 1966, the book was being bound by a New York City binder, I took Ray over to the bindery to see it being cased in (when the covers are attached to the book). By then he was delighted and wrote me one of the few formal letters ever received from him thanking me for doing it.

As for its reception, the book was a puzzler to even the most sophisticated readers at the time. Even someone who was a regular correspondent of Ray's, Stanton Kreider, wrote me an outraged letter saying what a silly book it was. Such people usually felt that Ray's mailings were and should remain ephemera. There were almost no reviews, but one did appear in Art Voices, one of the most scorching reviews I have ever seen, complaining the book was precious and completely trivial, a pleasure to an in-group. These letters and reviews are now in the Archiv Sohm in Stuttgart, where you can pursue them for yourself if you like.

RJ : It is good that you keep mentioning the places where things can be found, if I do or don't pursue, now somebody else might do it too. There are a lot of archives in the world. Besides the 'official' archives there are also the private collections that most (mail-) artists have built up. Are there still things that you collect?

Reply on 29-10-95 (internet)

DH : I feel overwhelmed by THINGS at my home. My letters are one of the main things I have done in this life, and I try to keep copies of each letter I send; but there is no space to save them. For years now my files have been going away - to the Archiv Sohm, for about 1972 to 1989 to the Jean Brown Archive, and from then till now the Getty Center in Santa Monica, California.

I don't think it makes sense for a private individual to have a closed archive if such a person is going to present a face to the world. I have read that Yoko Ono founded Fluxus, and I have seen that quoted as a

fact many times. One critic or student picks up errors from the one before. I don't know where that "fact" came from. Yoko is a good. modest person; she was a friend of ours and she had done pieces which are very much part of the older Fluxus repertoire. But she was not present on that November day of 1961 when Maciunas proposed to a group of us that we do a magazine to be called "Fluxus" and that we do performances of the pieces in the magazine; nor was she in Wiesbaden in September 1962 when we did those performances and the press began calling us "Die Fluxus Leute" - the Fluxus people. So while she, for instance, was surely one of the original Fluxus people, she did not found Fluxus. Well, if I am going to assert this, it is important that the documents of the time be available somewhere besides in my own files. Too, my writings are complex and full of allusions; this is not to create mysteries but to enrich the fabric and draw on reality. It can be useful therefore that my files be open to anyone who needs them, and this would be impossible if the files were here in my church.

Then there are other collections: from 1977 to 1991 I collected things related to Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), - apart from a passage in Plato's Phaedrus, Bruno's "De imaginum, signorum et idearum Compositione" (1593) has the earliest discussion I know of intermedia - but when Charlie Doria's translation of this work came out (which I edited and annotated) I sold off all the Bruno materials I had. From 1968 to 1990 (about) I collected patterns poetry-old visual poetry from before 1900 - but that too has gone away, most of it anyway. I have collected almost all of the books written, designed by or associated with Merle Armitage (1893-1975), a great modernist book designer, and my biography of him, "Merle Armitage and the Modern Book", is due out with David Godine next year. I will then sell that collection too. Perhaps it was a good experience acquiring these things, but that part is over now. Other collections have been given away. I collected a tremendous amount of sound poetry and information on it, meaning to do a book on the subject. But there was never money to do the book right. Perhaps that collection also should depart. There is too much art work by myself here in the church in which I live and work - it gets damaged because it cannot be stored properly. I would like to move to a smaller place, since I do not need and cannot afford this big one, and if that happens more things also go away.

There are some phonograph records, tapes and CD's too - too many to keep track of, some going baack to my teen years when I used to spend the money I earned by baby-sitting on records of John Cage, Henry

Cowell, G”esta Nystroem, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Anton Webern and such-like. I suppose the only books which are also tools and (for me) reference work-books on design or artistic crafts (orchestration,

for instance), Fluxbooks and Fluxcatalogs (I need to check my facts), books and magazines in which I am included (so I can tell where such- and-such a piece first was printed). As for objects, I care about my

mother's dishes and one table, but that is about all - the rest can go.

No, I am a temporary collector - as Gertrude Stein said of her visitors, she liked to see them come, but she also liked to see them go. I will acquire things when they are needed, but I need to unload them too. I have no right to own art, even by friends, because I cannot take care of it properly. It too must go. This church is dark with things, things, things - and maybe somebody else, somebody younger that I, might like to have them.

RJ : Why do you live in a church?

Reply on 4-11-1995 (internet)

DH : I live in this church because, when I moved to this area from Vermont (where I had lived almost fourteen years, off and on, up near the Quebec border) I bought a house, garage and church complex. It

had been "defrocked" by the Roman Catholic Church in 1974, its consecration taken away and the cross and bell removed, and it was sold to a couple who wanted it to become an antique shop. However there

was no drive-by traffic so they found that would not work. But nobody wanted to buy it from them. So I got it at a good price, as they say. My plan was to live in the house- a modest parsonage,- for my wife Alison Knowles to use the garage (where we set up a photo darkroom to be shared), and for myself to use the church as my own studio. For this it was fine.

But in 1985 when my finances began to collapse-with the decline in the US art world, the rise of our Radical Right and neo-Christian coalition, and with the Fluxus syndrome among exhibitors and collectors, I had to rent out the house to survive and to move into the church. It is a nice space, well suited to be a studio, but it is dark in the winter and is quite gloomy and expensive to heat. It has no doors so nobody is separated from anything else that is going on. There are virtually no doors to close, so there is no privacy. Sometimes I think I will go mad here.?Maybe I have. I would love to move, but like the previous owners I would find it hard to sell and in any case I have no money to move. Next winter I may have to do without heat here most of the time unless things look up. It is a curious environment for an artist.

I often refer to this "Fluxus syndrome." It is my term for a problem that I face. It goes like this. A gallerist, critic or exhibitor tells me "I like your work. I know you are a Fluxus artist." Then they see more of my

work and they compare it to the work of George Maciunas, whom they take to be the leader of Fluxus instead of its namer and, in his own preferred term, "Chairman" of Fluxus. They note that there are

differences and they say to me: "But that work is not Fluxus. Do you have any Fluxus work?" I say yes,-and I show work from the early sixties through late seventies. It still does not resemble the work of Maciunas.

It isn't usually even fun and games, which is what the public thinks of as Fluxus. So I am marginalized in Fluxus shows, or I am left out of other collections because "This is not a Fluxus gallery/museum show/collection." The problem is all but unavoidable, and in vain can one point out that if Fluxus is important, it is because of its focus on intermedia, that Maciunas recognized this repeatedly, that he knew perfectly well that there was room in Fluxus for work which did not resemble his at all. If one says anything like this in public, it is taken to be a disloyalty to George or some kind of in-fighting for prestige. I have sometimes been tempted to show my work under a false name in order to escape this syndrome altogether. But even that sounds as if I were ashamed of my Fluxus past, which I am not, even though it is not awfully relevant to my work since the late seventies. Also I still feel affinities to some of my Fluxus colleagues, though the work of others has, in my opinion, become repetitious crap. Many of my Fluxfriends could do with a little more self-criticism, in my opinion. Fluxus also has its share of hangers-on, people who were utterly marginal to the group and who kept their distance during the years when Fluxus had not acquired its present and perhaps false public image, but who are now all too willing to con their way into the list and to enter their colors for the next tournament.

RJ : This story about "Fluxus syndrome," is quite interesting when I compare it to mail art. There is the difference that in mail art most artist try to avoid the traditional art-world, and there is even the phrase "mail art and money don't mix" by Lon Spiegelman, that is used by others too. There are on the other hand also artists who say to organize a mail art show and then start to use entrance-fees and ask for money for catalogues ; try to 'con' people in the mail art network. What do you think of "mail art and money don't mix"? I know it's not an easy question to answer.

Reply on 11-11-1995 (internet)

DH : Money and mail art? Money and Fluxus? Mixing? You are right, I can't answer that one easily. Certainly if somebody got into mail art (or Fluxus) as a means of advancing his or her career- "Gee," says the dork, "ya gotta get inta as many shows as possible, I was in thirty-two last year and here's the catalogs to prove it," -he or she would swiftly learn that is not what the field is for. Rather, its purpose is to combat?alienation, and that is only in some respects an economic problem. Mail art has tremendous disruptive potential (and even some constructive social potential), as I described in my story about Polish mail artists and the East German bureaucrat. And it has great community-building power - even my hypothetical dork can say" "Wow, I got friends all over, from Argentina to Tunisia." But I must make a confession: I have probably seen forty or fifty actual exhibitions of mail art, and NOT ONE OF THEM was interesting to see. There were good things in each of them of course, but the effect of looking at them was weak. Why? Because they did not reflect the function - they always treated the sendings as final artifacts (sometimes ranked according to the prestige of the artist). But mail art pieces are virtually never final artifacts - they are conveyors of a process of rethinking, community-building and psychological and intellectual extension. Thus it is, I think, a distortion to think, of mail art as a commercial commodity of any kind. Because it is typically modest in scale usually and it is usually technically simple, the finest piece may come from the greenest, newest or the least skilled artist. There is no rank in mail art so long as the artist thinks and sees clearly.

Nevertheless, the issue of money is one which must be faced. Lack of it can ruin your capability for making mail art, for one thing. When the heat is gone and you can't afford to go to the doctor, it is very hard to focus on making this collage to send away, even though one knows that do so would bring great satisfaction and comfort. Yet the mail art itself is not usually salable, and nobody gets a career in mail art. One is free to be capricious, as I was circa twenty-odd years ago when I spent two months corresponding only with people whose last names began with M. It is not, then, so much that mail art and money do not mix but that mail art simply cannot be used to produce money, at least not directly, - which is not to say that one mail artist cannot help another. Obviously we can and do. I remember when Geoffrey Cook, a San Francisco mail artist, undertook a campaign through the mail art circuit to free Clemente Padin, the Uruguayan mail artist (among other things) who had been jailed by the military junta for subversion. It worked. And many is the mail artist who, wanting to see his or her correspondent, finds some money somewhere to help defray travel costs and such-like.

With Fluxus, the issue is different. Fluxart has in common with mail art its primary function as a conveyor of meaning and impact. But Fluxworks are not usually mail art and do not usually depend on a network of recepients. Some are enormously large. Some take large amounts of time to construct, some are expensive to build and so on. Given this, issues of professionalism arise which are not appropriate to mail art. If I insist on making my Fluxart amateur and to support myself by other means, I may not be able to realize my piece. I am thus forced at a certain point in my evolution to attempt to live form my art, since anything else would be a distraction. I must commercialize the uncommercializable in order to extend it to its maximum potential. What an irony! It is, I fancy (having been in Korea but not Japan), like the expensive tranquility of a Zen temple in contrast to the maniacal frenzy of Japanese commercial life outside it. Peace becomes so expensive one might imagine it is a luxury, which I hope it is not. So one is compelled to support it.


The difference is, I think, that commercial art supports the world of commodity; Fluxus and other serious art of their sort draws on the world of commerce for its sustenance but its aim lies elsewhere ? it points in other directions, not at the prestige of the artist as such (once someone once tried to swap, for a book by Gertrude Stein which he wanted, two cookies which Stein had baked, then about twenty-two years before) and certainly not at his or her ego in any personal sense (John Cage musing at the hill behind his then home, "I don't think I have done anything remarkable, anything which that rock out there could not do if it were active"). One must take one's work seriously, must follow its demands and be an obedient servant to them: nobody else will, right? If the demands are great and require that one wear a shirt and tie and go light people's cigars, then out of storage come the shirt and tie and out comes the cigar-lighter. That is what we must do. But we do not belong to the world of cigars; we are only visitors there. It is a liminal experience, like the shaman visiting the world of evil spirits. We can even be amused by the process. Anyway, that's my opinion.

RJ : Some mail artists say that the mail art network is more active than before. Others say that mail art is history because almost all the possibilities of the traditional mail have been explored, and that all the things that are happening now in mail art, are reproductions of things that happened before. Is mail art a finished chapter?

Reply on 16 December, 1995

(Santayana born today (1863) and Jane Austin too (1775)

DH : Well, I think both sides are right. Mail Art is more active than before if more people are doing it. Of course, for those of us whose interest in exploration I am glad they are doing it even though I see no

need to do it AS SUCH myself. Mail Art is [only?] history if all the possibilities have been explored - yes, if one's job is to explore things only formally. Of course I love history - without it I never know what

not to do. For me this last assumption is therefore right so far as it goes, but it does not go very far. Why should we assume that doing something once means it need not be done again? That is what I call the

"virgin attitude," fine for people who are hung up on sleeping with virgins but a dreadful idea if it is really love that you want. Aren't you glad that Monet painted more than one haystack or waterlily painting? Don't you have a food recipe which you would hate to change? A "finished chapter?" That has even more problematic assumptions.

?#060;/span>After all, a chapter in a book (including the Book of Life) involves reading, and the best books invite reading more than once. Isn't reading as creative as writing?

?#060;/span>Mail Art is, in my opinion, not a single form. I am not much of a taxonomist-someone else can decide how many forms it is, can classify and sort it out. What I know and have said in this interview is that Function precipitates Form. So long as new uses for Mail Art can appear, new forms are likely to arise. Just for instance-e-mail letters and magazines are relatively new. The ways we can use them have not

fully revealed themselves. The politics of this world are as fouled up as ever; perhaps there are mail art methods (including e-mail methods) which can be used to help straighten things out or at least point to the problems in a startling or striking way. No, I think mail art may be history - it has been with us at least since Rimbaud's burnt letters ?but only a Dan Quail (a proverbially obtuse right-wing politician here)

would say, as he did in 1989, that "History is Over!" And as long as there are people-artists-living alone here and there, confronted by problems (professional, formal, human or social), Mail Art is likely to have a role to play in helping to alleviate those problems.?What we must not do is allow ourselves to take ourselves too seriously-tendentiousness is a natural health hazard for the mail artist. The freshness and unpredictability of the medium are part of why, if mail art works at all, it really does. Just as we must always reinvent ourselves, according to whatever situations we find ourselves in, we must always reinvent our arts. And that includes mail art.

RJ : Well, this is a wonderful moment to end this interview. I want to thank you for your time and sharing your thoughts.

above copied from:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Transgressive Tactics in the Age of Unreason, Guillermo Gómez-Peña

In this rarefied atmosphere of paranoia, distrust, and scrutiny, performance artists have come to signify "potential trouble" for U.S. art institutions. We always do in times of crisis. We are perceived as irresponsible provocateurs, gratuitous iconoclasts, and, since 9/11, as cultural terrorists. Despite the fact that our audiences continue to be quite large (La Pocha averages 400 spectators every night we perform), we are invited with provisos, interrogated in advance by curators, and treated as potential troublemakers by the media. It's...a new American art rite.
The dreaded phone call comes a couple months before the project. The presenter's voice is audibly anxious. The worst possible scenario goes more or less like this:
PRESENTER: Gómez-Peña, we just had a board meeting last night and felt it was better not to bring your troupe to our city at this time. Maybe next year. The stakes are too high right now. We can't afford to risk our upcoming funding.
GÓMEZ-PEÑA: Well, thanks for being sincere, Mister...culero... (the last word uttered under my breath).
Other times, when the cultural institution decides to go ahead with the project but still has some apprehensions, the conversation occurs, either by phone or in person, a few days before opening night. If it happens in person, we are taken to a nice art bar and, after a few drinks—bless his/her heart—the curator or presenter takes a deep breath and starts the euphemistic interrogation:
PRESENTER: Guillermo, by no means do we want to censor you. We just want to know what we are up against in your upcoming piece. You know...we must be prepared in case...there are fire alarms...
GÓMEZ-PEÑA: (And fire alarms tend to go off when you're looking for smoke, I think to myself) Can you be more specific, my friend? (I know where they are going, but I don't know how grave their fears are.)
PRESENTER: I this performance "audience-friendly?" (A euphemism for art without venom or sharp edges.) Is there anything we should be worried about? Frontal nudity? Violence and sex? (The deadly combo.) Bloodletting? Exposure to bodily fluids? Will your performers touch any audience member inappropriately? Will you force any audience member to do anything that might be considered humiliating or offensive? Any profanity? Any disrespect for religious imagery? Will there be flag desecration? Will you be making fun of The Troops? (The list of fears and taboos intertwined with performance art clichés goes on and on and on-depending on the site, the project, and the presenter.)
Sometimes the presenter's "concerns" might be addressed with an emphatic disclaimer placed at the entrance of the gallery or theatre, something like: "There will be nudity and/or adult content and/or political images which you may find offensive..." If the museum director or presenter is a hip Vato, he may let me write my own disclaimer—Gómez-Peña style. I always try to create a funny disclaimer that heightens the specific fears of the curator or the institution—something like: "You are about to witness chicken nudity and unnecessary Mexican violence. Think twice before you cross this border."
Or, "Patriots should think twice before entering into an internationalized space." Or, "The artists are not responsible for identity crises audience members might endure during the performance." It works. But other times, when the stakes are higher (or the city is more conservative), the art bar chat with the curator becomes a clear-cut warning—either we tone down the political/sexual content of the piece, or the project will be "postponed" (a euphemism for canceled). Short of handing the presenter a script in advance, we try to be as specific as we can in terms of describing the images and performance rituals in our piece. We then try to negotiate, case by case, image by image, the inclusion/exclusion of the most sensitive material. It's tough. If we give in too much, then the project becomes defanged, decaffeinated. But if we don't pay attention to their fears and just go ahead and do whatever we want, we will immediately be blacklisted in their circuit. It's like performing in 1970s provincial Mexico.
A presenter told me recently, "There are clearly new forbidden territories which a performance artist must avoid if he wishes to remain employed in the U.S." The obvious subtext was: Please, make sure that the piece you are about to present here is not going to get me in trouble. Because if I get in trouble, so will you.
The main problem is that the fears of the U.S. presenters are well-founded; their moral dilemmas are real. My heart truly goes out to them. Their institutions, whether mainstream or "alternative" (does anyone know what "alternative" even means nowadays?), are rapidly losing their funding. Besides, the local media is not as willing to defend art as it used to be, and the newly empowered "faith-based organizations" are constantly looking for blood—potential art scandals to call down the wrath of God.
In this highly-charged political climate, many arts presenters and curators believe that their funding, and even their jobs, may be riding on the projects they present, so a potential media scandal or even a single hysterical complaint from a righteous audience member might influence the generosity of a donor or funder; or worse (knock on wood), it might incur the wrath of a Christian organization or a group of ferocious "patriots." Then the shit really hits the fan, and both the institution and the artists are attacked with hate mail and picketed by zombies. We might even be added to one of the many lists of "cultural traitors" featured on sites such as or
Despite the undeserved reputation of performance artists as professional provocateurs and cultural iconoclasts, we really see ourselves on the same side as our cultural institutions. It is clear to us that we are all part of the same milieu, and that their fate is connected to ours. Since our job is by no means to contribute to their de-funding, (and we certainly don't wish to give more ammunition to the ferocious Right), when the "trial by fire" occurs, we tend to back off and comply. We do it, not out of fear, but out of solidarity and political intelligence. Some curators and presenters know this. But sadly, not all do. This is why, as artists, we must constantly remind them: "We are on your side, carnales. In times like these, we need to help each other. We (the artists), need you guys to broker on our behalf, and defend our integrity. In exchange, we will make sure that no acts of 'irresponsible transgression' occur on your watch."
Article by Guillermo Gómez-Peña.

above copied from:

Monday, March 22, 2010

Atemporality for the Creative Artist, Bruce Sterling

*An unrepentant sympathizer took the trouble to type up a full transcript of my speech at Transmediale 10 on February 6.

*Since this volunteer made such a noble effort, it deserves to be pitched straight into the “Internet meme ooze” of blogs and social media. Here you are.

Transmediale 10, Berlin, Feb. 6, 02010

I would like to talk about this slogan ‘Futurity Now,’ and how the idea of ‘futurity now’ might become common sense. Not a contradiction in terms, which it obviously is right now, but a legitimate demand. Or a claim, or a lament.

So, what is ‘atemporality’? I think it’s best defined as ‘a problem in the philosophy of history’. And I hate to resort to philosophy, because I am a novelist. But I don’t think we have any way out here. It is about the nature of historical knowledge. What we can know about the past, and about the present, and about the future. How do we represent and explain history to ourselves? What are its structures and its circumstances? What are the dynamics of history and futurity? What has happened before? What is happening now? What is really likely to happen next?

History is not a science; history is an effort in the humanities. It’s about meanings, values, language, historical identity, institutions, culture. The philosophy of history is about very standard philosophical issues, like ontology, hermeneutics, and epistemology. And I know that’s true, and I can’t help it. But we only have forty minutes here.

So I want to deliver a speech that’s in two parts. The first is about atemporality as a modern phenomenon. What does it look like and feel like, as it actually exists? And the second part of the speech is: what can creative artists do about that? So this is ‘Atemporality for the Creative Artist’.

Now let me start with an anecdote, because I am a novelist rather than a philosopher, and I kinda like to tell stories. So what makes an atemporal situation diferent from a post-modern situation, or a modernist situation, or a classicist situation, what’s really different about it?

Well, let me take a guy who I am very fond of, a very immediate, hard-headed scientific thinker - Richard Feynman, American physicist. Richard Feynman once wrote about intellectual labor, and he said the following: ‘Step one - write down the problem. Step two - think really hard. Step three - write down the solution’.

And I really admire this statement of Feynman’s. It’s no-nonsense, it’s no fakery, it’s about hard work for the intellectual laborer… Of course it’s a joke. But it’s not merely a joke. He is trying to make it as simple as possible. I mean: really just confront the intellectual problem!

But there is an unexamined assumption in Feynman’s method, and it’s in step one - write down the problem.

Now let me tell you how the atemporal Richard Feynman approaches this. The atemporal Richard Feynman is not very paper-friendly, because he lives in a network culture. So it occurs to the atemporal Feynman that he may, or may not, have a problem.

‘Step one - write problem in a search engine, see if somebody else has solved it already. Step two - write problem in my blog; study the commentory cross-linked to other guys. Step three - write my problem in Twitter in a hundred and forty characters. See if I can get it that small. See if it gets retweeted. Step four - open source the problem; supply some instructables to get me as far as I’ve been able to get, see if the community takes it any further. Step five - start a Ning social network about my problem, name the network after my problem, see if anybody accumulates around my problem. Step six - make a video of my problem. Youtube my video, see if it spreads virally, see if any media convergence accumulates around my problem. Step seven - create a design fiction that pretends that my problem has already been solved. Create some gadget or application or product that has some relevance to my problem and see if anybody builds it. Step eight - exacerbate or intensify my problem with a work of interventionist tactical media. And step nine - find some kind of pretty illustrations from the Flickr ‘Looking into the Past’ photo pool.’

(If you don’t get what atemporality is by the end of these few images, I probably can’t help you.)

So, old Feynman, who was not the atemporal Feynman, would naturally object: ‘You have not solved the problem! You have not advanced scientific knowledge. There is no progress in this. You didn’t get to Step three - solving the problem.’ Whereas, the atemporal Feynman would respond: ‘It’s worse than that. I haven’t even done step one of defining the problem and writing it down. But I have done a lot of work about its meaning, and its value and its social framing, combined with some database mining, and some collaborative filtering, which is far beyond you and your pencil.’

Now, history is a story. And to write down the story of the fourteenth century, to just ask yourself - “what happened in the fourteenth century?” — Feynman style — is a very different matter from asking the atemporal question: “What does Google do when I input the search term ‘fourteenth century?’” I think we are over the brink of that. It’s a very, very different matter.

History books are ink on paper. They are linear narratives with beginning and ends. They are stories created from archival documents and from other books. Network culture, not really into that. Network culture differs from literary culture in a great many ways. And step one is that the operating system is an unquestioned given. The first thing you do is go to the operating system, without even thinking of it as a conscious choice.

Then there is the colossally huge, searchable, public domain, which is now at your fingertips. There are methods to track where the eyeballs of the users are going. There are intellectual property problems in revenue, which interferes with scholarship as much as it aids it. There is a practice of ‘ragpicking’ with digital material - of loops, tracks, sampling. There are search engines, which are becoming major intellectual and public political actors. There is ‘collective intelligence’. Or, if you don’t want to dignify it with that term, you can just call it ‘internet meme ooze’. But it’s all over the place, just termite mounds of poorly organized and extremely potent knowledge, quantifiable, interchangeable data with newly networked relations. We cannot get rid of this stuff. It is our new burden, it is there as a fact on the ground, it is a fait accompli.

There are new asynchronous communication forms that are globalized and offshored, and there is the loss of a canon and a record. There is no single authoritative voice of history. Instead we get wildly empowered cranks, lunatics, and every kind of long-tail intellectual market appearing in network culture. Everything from brilliant insight to scurillous rumor.

This really changes the narrative, and the organized presentations of history in a way that history cannot recover from. This is the source of our gnawing discontent.

It means the end of post-modernism. It means the end of the New World Order, which is about civilizing the entire planet, stopping all the land wars, repressing the terrorism. It means the end of the Washington Consensus of the nineteen nineties. It means the end of the WTO. It means the end of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’; it ended. And it’s moving in a completely different and unexpected direction.

The idea that history ended, and that the market sorts that out, and that the Pentagon bombs it if that doesn’t work - it’s gone. The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.

Now, a new master narrative could arise on paper. That would be easy. On paper, if it were just a matter of paper, we could do it. But to do that via the Internet is about as likely as the Internet becoming a single state-controlled television channel. Because a single historical narrative is a paper narrative.

I don’t think we are going to get one. We could conceivably get a new ideology or a new business model that is able to seize control of the course of events and reinstate some clear path to progress, that gets a democratic consensus behind it. I don’t think that’s likely. At least not for ten years. I could be wrong, but it’s not on the near-term radar.

What we are facing over a decade is a decade of emergency rescue, of resiliency, of attempts at sustainability, rather than some kind of clear march toward advanced heights of civilization. We are into an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures, of new social inventions within networks, a world of ‘Gothic High-Tech’ and ‘Favela Chic’ (as I’ve called it), a crooked networked bazaar of history and futurity, rather than a cathedral of history, and a utopia of futurity.

That’s just the situation on the ground. I don’t want to belabor this point. I don’t want to go on and on about the fact that this is a new historical situation. If you don’t get it by now, you will be forced to get it; you will have no other choice.

The question is: now what? Given that we have atemporal organized representations of verbal structures, what can we actually do? Where is the fun part?

Where is the fun part? And I think there could be some, actually. We are living in an atemporal network culture, and I don’t think that requires a moral panic. I think it ought to be regarded as something like moving into a new town.

We’ve moved into a new town, and the first order of business is like : ok, what gives around here? Well, there seems to be this sort of decayed castle, and there’s also a lot of slums…. That’s not the sort of thing which requires a punk ‘no-future’ rage. Like: ‘You’ve taken away my future, and I am going to kill you, or kill myself, and throw a brick at a cop!’ I don’t really think that is helpful.

What’s needed here is like a kind of atemporality that’s like agnosticism. Just a calm, pragmatic, serene skepticism about the historical narratives. I mean: they just don’t map onto what is going on.

So how do we just — like — sound out our new scene? What can we do to liven things up, especially as creative artists?

Well, the immediate impulse is going to be the ‘Frankenstein Mashup.’ Because that’s the native expression of network culture. The “Frankenstein mashup” is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ‘em together, in sort of a collage. More or less semi-randomly, like a Surrealist “exquisite corpse.”

You can do useful and interesting things in that way, but I don’t really think that offers us a great deal. Even when it’s done very deftly, it tends to lead to the kind of levelling blandness of ‘world music.’ That kind of world music that’s middle-of-the-road disco music which includes pygmy nose-flutes or sitars.

The kind of thing is tragically easy to do, but not really very effective. It’s cheap to do. It’s very punk rock. It’s very safety pins and plastic bags. But it’s missing a philosophical high-end, really an atemporal meaning of life. High-art.

And I would like to see some of that. I think there is a large hole there that could be filled, from an atemporal perspective. Not at the lowest end of artistic expression, but way up at the top philosophical end.

Then there are things like that increasing vogue we have for ‘lost futures’: steampunk, atompunk, dieselpunk. You’re finding earlier methods of production, pretending that they’d never become defunct, and then adding on to those. I would add to those: you could do a lot of good work with the materiality of dead regimes and also with colonialism.

These have been hobby activities, and even sci-fi fan activities, I think they could be classed up very considerably.

Then there are other elements which are native to our period that didn’t really work before, such as generative art. I take generative art quite seriously. I’d like to see it move into areas like generative law, or may be generative philosophy. The thing I like about generative art is that it drains human intentionality out of the art project.

Say, in generative manufacturing, you are writing code for a computer fabricator, and you yourself don’t know the outcome of this code. You do not know how it will physically manifest itself. Therefore you end up with creative objects that are bleached of human intent.

Now there is tremendous artistic intent — within the software. But the software is not visible in the finished generative product. To me, it’s of great interest that these objects and designs and animations and so forth now exist among us. Because they are, in a strange way, divorced from any kind of historical ideology. They are just not human.

There are potential and new forms of collaborative art that have no single authors. Open source arts, multiplayer arts, multimedia collaboration. Online world building is of great interest. That was not physically possible before. It’s something we can do that nobody else can do.

I am listing these methods; some of them will work, some of them will turn out to be dead-ends. The thing that interests me is that they could be done from this particular perspective, and they can be fresh.

The ‘pre-distressed antique futurity’. William Gibson wrote about this when we was writing about atemporality, associating it with his ‘Zero History’ novel that he is working on. Gibson was saying that if you have a genuinely avant garde idea, something that’s really new, you should write about it or create about it as if it were being read twenty years from now. In other words, if you want to do this, you want to strip away the sci-fi chrome, the sense of wonder. You want it to be antique before it hits the page or the screen. Imagine that it was twenty years gone into the future. Just approach it from that perspective.

No longer allow yourself to be hypnotized by the sense of technical novelty. Just refuse to go there. Accept that it is already passe’, and create it from that point of view. Try to make it news that stays news.

Refuse the awe of the future. Refuse reverence to the past. If they are really the same thing, you need to approach them from the same perspective.

‘Recuperating forms of history that cannot be written.’ This is of tremendous interest. I think it escapes the literary traps of history. Just history that could not be written about. History about people who were not the winners, history about people who had no literatures. Pre-history. Human experience before the historical record was created.

We can trace this now through genetics, we can trace it through archeology. Times before humanity existed. Cosmic chronology. The way we learn about our things, through non-literary sources such as garbage, pollen counts, environmental damage, even corpses. You can look at what’s been learned from the corpse of ‘Otzi,’ this Bronze-Age European. Fantastic things.

‘Humanistic heavy iron’: it’s taken a long time for the humanities to get into super computing, and into massive database management. They are really starting to get there now. You are going to get into a situation where even English professors are able to study every word ever written about, or for, or because of, Charles Dickens or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. That’s just a different way to approach the literary corpus. I think there is a lot of potential there.

Information visualization is of great interest to me. I think it’s an art form, a potential science. And also design.

Becoming ‘multi-temporal’, rather than multi-cultural: it used to be a very big problem for historians that they supposedly could not divide themselves from the outlooks and interests of their own age. I think we are approaching a situation where the outlooks and interests of our own age make very little sense. They just don’t bind us to anything in particular. We don’t have a coherent outlook or interest that can enslave us. This means we are closer to a potentially objective history than anybody has ever been.

There are interesting potentials for a complete digital recapturing of earlier artifacts, earlier means of production. Instead of just theorizing about what people could have done with the steam engine, you just model a steam engine. You can print a steam engine out.

There are things that could be done with the museum economy in Europe that have not been done. I quite like the idea of a personal museum economy. For instance, rather than dressing up your downtown as some kind of relic of the eighteen hundreds, why don’t you just dress up your vacation home as the seventeen fifties? Or just refit your own home, really, as with the devices and services of an earlier century. Why feel that it’s not modern? If they are all the same thing, why not just go ahead, get off the grid and make your own butter and use your own well? Just go there with a kind of immediacy and just experience it as a contemporary thing.

Why not designer fiction as life? Why not role-playing games in real spaces? Why not become the change you want to see?

If, for instance, you think the future should offer ‘personal space flight’ - perhaps you are an enthusiast for that? - why don’t you just dress up as an astronaut? Just invent the whole thing, just go out and carry it onto the streets! Just invent the Jezz Bezos Blue Origin spacecraft, make your own spacecraft suitcases, spacecraft astronaut gear.

Yes, you will look ridiculous. But by what standard? By what standard can you be held to be ridiculous? Why not just go and make yourself a personal public testimony for a future that doesn’t exist? Why not just carry it out with a kind of Gandhian dedication, and see what happens?

There are other methods that I have not described. They will be rediscovered, or they will be invented. But I think there is tremendous creative potential in atemporality.

And I want to warn you, and also promise you, that this too shall pass. It’s just a period.

We are in a period which I think is dominated by two great cultural signifiers. An analog system that belonged to our parents, which has been shot full of holes. It is the symbol of the ruined castle. “Gothic High-Tech.” The ruins of the unsustainable.

And the other symbol is the favela slum, “Favela Chic,” the informalized, illegalized, heavily networked structure of the emergent new order. The things that the twenty first century is doing that are genuinely novel, that have not been domesticated or brought into sociality.

The Gothic High-Tech and the Favela Chic. These are very obvious to me, as a novelist and creative artist. Perhaps you won’t see things this way — but I think the life-span of this will be about ten years. A new generation will arise who does not need things explained to them in this way. They will not wonder at a slogan like ‘futurity now’, because they will have never known anything different.

They will not have to forget how things used to be. And at that point, we will be on a different playing field.

But we don’t get to choose the era of history that was given to us. We can only choose what we do within the parameters of what exists on the ground.

Now, no matter how confusing this may seem or how poorly phrased, there is a very good chance that you can physically outlive this era with your own body. It’s just ten years! ‘Futurity Now’ in some ways is like a slogan that means ‘Make me grow up’. That’s what you are demanding when you say ‘futurity now’. It’s like ‘make me get older’, ‘make me get wiser, now!’.

That’s doable.

We are going to have Early Atemporality, where we are struggling with what it means and how it’s different from post-modernism, and we are going to have Late Atemporality, where we pretty well get it about what was going on, and we can see the limits of that, and we know that something else is going to happen. That’s going to take ten years. You can physically outlive the period in which explaining things in this way makes sense.

Atemporality is a philosophy of history with a built-in expiration date. It has a built in expiration date. It’s not going to last forever. It’s not a perfect explanation, it’s a contingent explanation for contingent times.

Futurity was expected, futurity is here now, there goes futurity into the past, so long futurity, thank you for an exciting, fulfilling and worthwhile time.

Thank you for your attention.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

book review FORMULAS FOR NOW, David Berridge

FORMULAS FOR NOW formulated by Hans Ulrich Obrist (Thames & Hudson 2008), ISBN 978-0-500-23850-9

Since 2006 the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has asked writers, artists, architects, scientists and mathematicians to contribute a "formula for the 21st century." A selection of responses to this request are gathered in this new book from Thames & Hudson, its purple cardboard covers and playful design straddling a boundary between art book, puzzle collection and - something about those thick covers, large type and color choice - toy bath book.

The result is a gathering of formulas by turns funny, frustrating, irritating and enlightening - and a little prone to that hinterland between profundity and the self-help book: "The solution is in the problem" reads the opening contribution. Formulas are presented in a range of styles - from the brief handwritten score to dense, expository prose, "genuine" and "mock" mathematics, and photographs. The book as a whole has a high octane visual design which sometimes seems intrinsic to the artists contribution, and sometimes seems the over zealous work of the books designer, seeking to counter some occasionally thin material.

Formulas by contemporary artists are interspersed with contributions which offer a kind of meta-commentary on the formula itself: such as an interview with Paul Elliman on his work on voice simulation, and the astonishing range of formulas needed to recreate a simple vowel sound. A reproduction of Albert Hoffman's scribbled LSD formula has a similar effect: prompting awareness of the social change stemming from such a casually scrawled formulation.

All of which offers some useful ballast to the A-list art ego on offer elsewhere. Brian Eno's careful, dry, diagrammatic formulation of Garrett Hardin's "Essay on Ethical Implications of Carrying Capacity" prompts all the negatives about stampeding over-eagerly into other disciplines, taking oneself and the form too seriously. Similarly, it's hard not to feel a qualitative distinction between those - such as Yona Friedman - for whom diagrammatic formulation has long been a vital part of their work, and contributers coming up with clever, funny, one-offs about their creative process. Although, having said that, perhaps none of this matters as long as long as the formula maker maintains a dexterous, shifting intelligence, whose gaps and contradictions often evoke the structures of the comic.

Obrist outlines the books lineage in the intricate drawings of Roger Penrose's Roads to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (2004). A productive - and much earlier - comparison could also be made to the Assembling anthologies supervised by Richard Kostelanetz, or Emmett Williams Anthology of Concrete Poetry, in which one finds a similar range of image-text combinations, often seeking to embody a range of information in a condensed, almost ideographic form. More specifically, the form of a page for some image-text combination evokes the fluxus score.

But this is also where the differences kick in. It's hard not to see this kind of project as an implied rebuke of fluxus as all game, lacking its own real social and intellectual connections to scientists, architects and mathematicians. But reading Formulas For Now posed some counter-arguments:

1. Scores left open future possibilities whilst formulas offer some summation by a Great Mind. Scores were a self-consciously marginal cultural activity, whilst Formulas are by those keen to be seen at the centre of cultural production.

2. The shift from scores to formulas suggest our model of cultural reception has become much less performative and participatory. There's a sub-text to the formulas that risks re-inventing a world of elitist, experts, something that certainly seems implied by Nancy Spero's amusing contribution which begins:

The main thing is that no one (or) no one shall (to be decided) does (or) do anything that would be detrimental to society either physically or mentally. There will be a huge number of scientists and psychiatrists that would monitor the world and Hans Ulrich would be Head Monitorist.(139)

That said, I think there might be another reason for my somewhat disgruntled response to this book: Formulas as contradictory and bad-tempered. If some are annoying for being overly casual, others become boring for being too dense. This perversity is part of their nature, at least when the formulas are aesthetic rather than mathematical. My favorites are those that recognize the formulaic quality of artistic work itself, and don't shift from that into mock-profundity - such as Rosmarie Trockel's handwritten fax that says "Think, pig!" or Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's photo of an installation on which she has written TROPICALIZATION in large letters on the white wall.

Despite all these reservations Formulas for Now is still an exciting read, but to realize this I had to make a mental shift away from its contributer list as a map of Obrist's professional network. Like fluxus scores, formulas at their best demonstrate a particular form of intelligence, of processing and activating information, in a form that, through being both linguistic and visual, also becomes spatial, multi-dimensional, and, seemingly, instantaneous. It's a kind of thought that offers to remove these contradictions.

That it remains viable as an artistic strategy is perhaps best illustrated not by this book at all but by a another recent exploration of score and formula: lab's Instructions For Films . This work, like Formulas for Now is at its best when engaging the exacting force field of the formula: between joke and mathematics; order and disorder; language and image; proposition, hint, realization.

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