Sunday, July 31, 2011

An Origin Story

The family lore is that my younger brother took his first steps as a toddler when he let go of the stereo console in the living room.  He'd been peering in at the record going 'round and 'round, turned and, grinning, wobbled a few steps and fell.  His defining moment.  His origin story.  Mine is this: my younger brother took his first steps as a toddler when he let go of the stereo console in the living room.  He'd been peering in at the record going 'round and 'round, turned and, grinning, wobbled a few steps and fell, and I wonder whether this is true or whether it's familial myth or if that even matters, if whether stories we tell about the family matter because they happened or because they have the richness of fiction, its possibilities and playfulness and contrivances, its funny endings and thoughtful themes, because they take root and grow, propagating in all manner of random urgencies, story-seeds flying and landing and nourishing in surprising places to grow even stronger and brighter next year.  Beauty no less valuable, no less useless. My brother's forever turning, forever grinning, forever tumbling—whether it happened that way or not, he's stilled in that version of events.  He's told.  A story lingers because it matters, whether it occurred as the calendar does or inside an imagined truth that speaks no less accurately.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Looking into the past with Jason Powell

Recently, a friend showed me the work of Jason Powell.  In his series Looking Into The Past, Powell photographs sites in and around the Washington D.C. area while holding between his camera and location a physical photo of the same spot taken in an earlier era. Most of the archival photographs he uses free of charge from the Library of Congress.  The result is at once a painstaking recreation of a lost time and an illusion.

What's interesting to me is the way Powell's work conflates two subjective documents of reality.  Photos are, in a sense, deeply flawed artifacts.  Do the flaws compound in Powell's yoking-together, or do they cancel each other out?  Any photograph is a selection of reality — that selection governed by many things: style; taste; desire; weather; limited or exclusive access.  Perhaps a story-to-tell.  And that story is itself ruled by the subjective point of view of the teller: I've come here, drawn perhaps by something larger than myself, to tell this story about this place, but I'll wait until x, y, and z are out of the frame.  Even Warhol's film Empire — an eight-hour continuous shot of the Empire Sate Building, ostensibly an objective recording of existence merely existing — is composed of its author's tendencies: it's in slow-motion; it's filmed from a particular floor (41st) of a particular building (Time-Life); it started in the middle of the night (2:42 am), its very stubborn presence the result of a unique artist's Post-modern vision.  Attempts to photograph or film an location are governed by infinite subjective choices, some conscious, some not.  Even the spontaneous snapshot aesthetic is bound to this.  So, Powell is presenting a particular recreated past, one that begins in the present of his choice; overlaid are choices made by another. 

Powell's work is fascinating for the juxtapositions he discovers (creates).  One of my favorites is a shot of F Street in Northwest Washington D,C, a favorite area of mine as its where the old 9:30 Club stood; the particular location in Powell's photo is the revamped "crack park" at Ninth and F Streets.  This area is unrecognizable to me now, gleaming new buildings, robust industry, and a thoroughfare having long replacing the blighted Old Downtown.  Powell's created image renders this well.  Another favorite is "Newsie, Willard Hotel, Washington, DC," the created image here a superimposition of a young boy in 1912 selling newspapers ("He and his brother are said to have a large clientele among ambassadors and senators") in front of the old hotel, a trolley car moving behind him, his small face peering at us through a turbulent century's worth of urbanization, change, and history, a little kid locked in time visiting a present that he'd be dwarfed by in more ways than one.  I'd love to know the headline of the paper he's selling.  It's a touching and brilliant image.  Another moving photo is "March On Washington, August 28, 1963."  Powell lays on top of an ordinary shot of tourists milling about the Mall an image of a large political demonstration, history's ghosts momentarily occupying the space where, the photographer implies in his accompanying commentary, many forget the progressive gains that have been made.


What's staggering to consider are the differences that would have occurred had the photographer of the past, say, snapped his shutter the following day, or simply sneezed or coughed before he took his picture, the young newsie's expression metamorphosing in that brief but eternal moment, a very different story now; if Powell had taken his photos in different circumstances, the parallel story that the present tells might've been markedly changed, as well.  Powell's work combines a selected past with a selective present.  We live in an infinite kaleidoscope: the over-matched photograph lies about that.  Powell seems to be wrestling with the ways that deceptions might be combined to tell new truths.

Two frames from Empire via Wiki.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What's Happened To The Present Tense?

A couple of days ago Amy and I were crossing 14th Street at Seventh Avenue in Manhattan when a modern-day rickshaw driver — ie., a dude on a bike dragging a coach — flew past us through the intersection.  It was nine o'clock or so, warm out, the block was buzzing, the vibe was good, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  And nothing was out of the ordinary: the couple in the coach was grinning, and the woman was recording it all on her iPad.

You Now or "You Now"?
The sight was funny, and somewhat startling, still.  Here was a woman being ferried down Seventh Avenue, vaulting out of Chelsea into the West Village on a night full of bright lights and honks and raucous cheer, and she was holding her iPad at arm's length as if she were reading a book and had forgotten her glasses.  She was recording the moments for posterity, to watch and share later, maybe with friends and family back home hundreds of miles away, maybe with friends and family back home a few bocks away.  She was clearly loving the technological indulgence, the opportunity to record in high definition a barreling careen down a wide avenue in a legendary city, framing her night's good times.  She was laughing out loud, so was her partner.

What's happened to the present tense?  Hardly a new question, I acknowledge.  Since behemoth cameras a hundred years ago began freezing older generations in grimly-smiling poses and more recently the portable moving camera began documenting the family trip to Disney World, some have wondered about the growing disconnect between the moment as lived and the moment as recorded.  What's remarkable now (if increasingly unremarkable to note) is the array of choices that we have in recording the present, the ease and immediacy with which we can document our now and play back our past into our present.  OK, I'll bite: what was that woman experiencing?  The ride, or the compulsion to record?  Both!  But I insist that multi-tasking is a myth concocted by the telecommunications industry.  Read, talk, drive, text, listen: something has to give.  No different with the woman flying through the intersection: she lives; she records; something gives.

Fearing hopeless and tiresome Luddite-ity, I'll acknowledge that this is the New Present.  A redefined present, one that has lost a share of its personal value if not rewound, stored, shared, uploaded.  Be present, press record.  Play back.  And that's fine: we all want a record of what we've seen, of where we've been, to cherish later, to divide or multiply with the algorithm of nostalgia.  But that woman looked pretty ludicrous bouncing in the seat of that creaky, bicycle-drawn carriage holding her iPad out in front of her like a kind of transparent shield, yielding but deflecting.  At least, I wanted to say, press record and look up.


At a show I'll hold up my iPhone, snap a pic (I don't want to miss this), look down, scroll, nod, frown at the poor flash, compare.  What'd I miss?

iPad image via Alexia.

He Walked the Bowery

Lenny Kaye at Mercury Lounge, NYC, July 16, 2011

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Rumpus and Blink

I have a couple of new music pieces up, an entry on Buddah Records' Journey To The Moon in The Rumpus "Albums Of Our Lives" series, and a blink of an essay up at Blink.

Music image via Music Tablet.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Family, Refracted

"Imagine ten siblings, born at one-year intervals, each of whom, on his or her thirtieth birthday, writes a memoir about growing up.  Reading those ten memoirs, we would find agreement, in general, only on the barest facts.  Everything else—pecking-order differences, stronger and weaker egos, parental favoritism—would be subject to individual perspective, in part because each kid had fought hard to be heard or had wilted in the competition.  Which book is true?  All are true and none is truer, though each of the ten writers would defend his or her truth forever.  Who can say what the family's story is?  I've never heard of a single-family bevy of memoirs.  Rather, there's usually only one author in the clan.  He or she is situationally selected as the most observant one in the group—I'm afraid that's been my lot—who, though she is crowned, can never really be the family spokesman."

— Thomas Larson, The Memoir And The Memoirist: Reading & Writing Personal Narrative

Photo of hands making a house via 123RF.

Who Will I Be

I just finished Carl Klaus's thoughtful The Made-Up Self: Impersonation In The Personal Essay.  When a writer claims that he's writing autobiographically, Klaus argues, what he's really doing is creating a persona, a version, or more often versions, of himself.  What Klaus doesn't explicitly say is that all personal writing should bear the tag "Based On True Events."  Are my essays simply made-for-TV recreations of the past, filtered through changeable aspects of my personality?  Of course.  Klaus asks a lot of good questions about authenticity and honesty, looking at autobiographical work from Montaigne's many selves to Nancy Mairs's brutally vivid self-portraits.

Klaus is most interesting when he discusses affliction writing, a veritable cottage-industry now (think Survivor Memoir, Abuse Memoir, Malady Memoir, etc.) but a relatively new phenomena in arts and letters (which I was reminded of by reading the obituaries of Betty Ford, who shocked the nation in the 1970s when she spoke candidly and vividly of her physical ailments).  Klaus writes:
Given the hunger of such essayists to convey "the most intimate and interior dimensions of self," I've been tempted to call their pieces confessional or intimate essays....  I'm inclined instead to think of them as "existential essays," especially because they are so concerned with exploring, expressing, and embodying the self in some of the most pressing circumstances of its existence
Perhaps the contours of one's life — personality, character, Bergson's past leaking into the present — come into sharpest relief when one is standing at a precipice of sorts: physical, psychological, spiritual, etc.  I'm not convinced of this, as it would nullify much of the writing of what the mental health industry terms statistically normal people, and their genuine urgencies and conflicts.  Klaus doesn't discuss gay/lesbian "coming out" memoirs, another sub-species of autobiography that has crowded bookshelves in the last couple of decades, but there too, when artfully essayed, are selves most often forged in "pressing circumstances."  This will likely change in the coming years as gays and lesbians continue to be accepted, legislatively and otherwise, into the mainstream.  If one goal of the personal essay or memoir is to explore the limits of self and the shifting demarcations of personality, then a statistical minority's honest attempts at this have a kind of built-in urgency, perhaps even drama.  This urgency can be squandered, of course, with poor writing, ungenerous character, and shallow thinking.  And the urgency can become slack if the cultural circumstances that created it vanish.


I've thought a lot about versions of the self and the tools we use to create them, recently here and here.  Klaus's observations remind us of the fascinating problem of self-manipulation in the hands of the personal essayist.  I've often felt that the window-at-dusk is an apt metaphor for the personal writer: we look out the window in an attempt to see and dramatize the world and we notice ourselves reflected back, ghostly but stubbornly.  It's more accurate to say that we write in a hall of mirrors.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Martha Rosler's Reality

A year ago at the Art Institute in Chicago I wandered into an exhibit featuring photomontages from Martha Rosler's series "Bringing The War Home: House Beautiful."  I'm generally wary of most politically-based art, concerned that agenda will trump subtlety, a problem even if my and the artist's politics correspond.  I worry that the work will state rather than evoke, lecture rather than startle, but I was immediately struck by Rosler.  The memorable pieces in Rosler's series avoid blatancy by letting the war and its attendant cultural, historical, and political concerns creep up on us and our quietly ordinary domestic lives.  And this is Rosler's political gesture.  The war and its warriors stay on the outside (mostly — sometimes they wander in, but they still seem to leave little trace) and we gaze at them through the window.  They become background (soldiers prowling the yard; bomb blast clouds mushrooming behind us as we gab with friends) or inessential foreground (Lynndie England, with tell-tale leash, standing idly in your kitchen; bound
"Saddam's Place"
torture victims on a stylish living room's floor as a runway model struts past) — either way a pretty apt metaphor for contemporary war's inessential place in everyday discourse.  It's just going on over there, a Rosler piece says, so keep doing what you're doing.  In "Saddam's Place," as soldiers explore the ruins of one of Hussein's palaces the woman from the Febreeze commercial goes about her crucial business of freshening up the sofas, blissfully unaware or brutally avoiding.  What's worse?  The yoking together of domestic and horror, ordinary and spectacle, innocent and wicked reminds me a lot of self-proclaimed "Punk Art Surrealist" Winston Smith's collage work.  In fact ever since I saw Rosler's exhibit I can't keep the two apart in my imagination.  Both artists revel in playful pictorial surprise but forcefully remind us that contemporary culture is fairly immune to surprise now, that we Live In Montage, which means that we accept the surreal (or worse, we ignore it), that we are no longer forcefully shocked, and that we can compartmentalize with ease.

Modern life requires it.   In the middle of the last century, poet Denise Levertov argued that "poetry has a social function, it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock."  Rosler's and Smith's work shrug a collective shoulder: there's no shocking anymore.  Your move, poetry.

Monday, July 4, 2011

"Indoor Fireworks"

A great song by Elvis Costello sung by his old mate and partner in crime, Nick Lowe.

Watch those bottle rockets, now.

Friday, July 1, 2011

"Rough Cut: A View From Elizabeth Street"

I have an essay in the form of a film script about Martin Scorsese and the autobiographical impulse up at Ancora Imparo, the journal of art, process, and remnant:
 I wanted to place the personal essay — its strategies and qualities — on top of the Scorsese canon, and see where the two might overlap. An attempt. I like to compare creative modes of expression wherein initially the correspondences seem to be at wide intervals; this way the comparison, if it’s valid, has to stretch, elongate, ideally offering some surprising discoveries. Scorsese doesn’t make purely “I”-centered films — the voiceovers in his movies are his fictional characters’, not his own — but his way into his subjects is almost always autobiographical. Zola’s temperament filter. I wonder: can we view Scorsese’s movies as a kind of extended quasi-autobiography?  Maybe autobiography as prism? Where does the personal end and the fiction begin?