Thursday, May 8, 2008

bulling one's way through

Art, Sociology, and Bovine Excrement

A Meditation for the Birthday of Thomas Pynchon

creative commons copyright Jerry Cullum, ‘cause I’m cool like that

A familiar eight-letter English word that tends to get blocked by parental-advice and work-safe language filters has had an entire book devoted to it, usually rendered in newspaper references as “On B***s***.” I have no idea what is in the book, but since I dislike typing asterisks I shall substitute, in this essay, the word “bulldot.” Copy and change it globally if you so choose.

I have always admired, both for its profundity and its alliterative “b”s, the saying “If you can’t bedazzle them with your brilliance, then baffle them with your bulldot.”

I have noticed, however, that very few of those who are less than confident of their ability to impress with brilliance understand the necessity of well-crafted bulldot.

Before encountering the artworld object that is the actual subject of this essay, I had been thinking of a brief exchange in the film version of The Year of Living Dangerously, in which rival journalists are fuming over the explosively revelatory contents of an essay by a young competitor that has been reprinted by their editors. The younger of the aggrieved pair says to the elder, “Come on, Wally, you know that piece is bulldot!” to which the older man replies, “Yes, my friend, but it’s well-written bulldot, and it’s sitting right there on the front page of my employer’s newspaper.”

Provincial art scenes, too, have difficulty distinguishing between what is brilliantly baffling bulldot and what is merely blather, so I have always admired the Slovenes in this regard.

Even after Austria lapsed into its own post-imperial provinciality, Slovenia was still considered the minority province on the wrong side of the border; thought of as the least among the Yugoslav republics, it was the one you never heard anything about in the twentieth-century days when the Croats and the Serbs were inordinately proud of their writers and sculptors who attained world prominence.

But in the waning days of united Yugoslavia, a puckish group of intelligent merry pranksters who called themselves many things, Neue Slowenische Kunst, Laibach, and Irwin among them, set out to offend the powers that were in every artistic genre they could think of---including the academic disciplines of the social sciences.

NSK became an artists’ state, the first “state in time instead of a state in space.”

I leave Laibach’s rock music and various other aggressions to one side for the moment; these folks first gained fame for winning a competition for a Yugoslav government poster with a design that replicated, except for the flag and the specific wording, a Nazi propaganda poster. They gave their movement a German title and named their band after the German name for the Slovene capital.

And when, improbably, Slovenia seceded peacefully from the Yugoslav federation while the other republics sank into years of internecine warfare, NSK claimed the Republic of Slovenia as their most successful conceptual art project.

The NSK passports, which were issued to a good many Atlantans during the 1996 Olympics, had been used to cross physical borders successfully because the numbers coded into them had been lifted from the Slovene Foreign Ministry by a friend of the artists’ group. (How come nobody ever reminisces about the good old days when NSK and the director of Skuç in Ljubljana and Dah Teatr from Belgrade and similar folks came to Atlanta on an ongoing basis?)

And a present-day Slovene artists’ publication currently findable (not for long, I should think) in the Little Five Points Community Center illustrates on its front cover a webpage of the Slovene Foreign Ministry explaining that the NSK passport is not issued by the Republic of Slovenia and cannot be gotten from the Ministry. (I’ll believe in the authenticity of this web page when I access it myself, having had my name inserted into international news stories on newspaper web pages by a prankster friend who didn’t know he was doing conceptual art.)

Now, there is a longstanding relationship between some Tennessee conceptualists and Slovene conceptualists, which I assume is how this Slovene newsletter found its way into the Little Five Points Community Center. I have forgotten who is responsible for this longtime collaboration, though I would suppose that the infamous Beauvais Lyons has something to do with it.

I’ve always had problems with Beauvais Lyons because his elaborately thought out cultural fakes always have more ambition than consistent success (a more generous way of putting it is that the bodies of work are designed to make obvious that his archaeological reports and folk art collectors and such are completely fake, and I put it that way once in a review of his show at Eyedrum). His ideas sometimes outrun his capacity to pull them off, and a collective effort might have worked better than a solo operation if he had wanted to produce a fully convincing piece of smart fakery.

But at least Lyons understands what intelligent bulldot ought to be. And so do the Slovenes, to judge from this publication, which is as full of pompous bulldot as any post on the Atlanta artnews listserv ever was.

The Slovenes, unlike many of the Atlantans who blather on, have absorbed the lessons of the adjacent cultural capitals and produced their own equally ambitious parodies, queries, and more than merely querulous interrogations of the big boys. They have understood the big boys (and they are boys, mostly) at least well enough to make fun of them.

It helps to have a history of being a cultural and political outrider of an empire a short train or bus ride away, but there have been years in which artists had no money to ride the train, or passports to cross the border. They figured out ways to do it anyway.

And, of course, one not only has to know what the other folks are doing, one has to have the inspiration to create something original that will stand up to criticism. If one is supporting one’s efforts with theoretical bulldot, the efforts had better look good enough, and the bulldot had better be brilliantly baffling.

And by the way, it helps if the artists actually have something to say that is worth saying, although to judge from the lesser scions of the Slovene conceptualists that seems to be optional.

But thoughts that are well thought but poorly expressed will also get no points for trying, simply because (and I can testify to this from my own experience) no one will even be sufficiently baffled to bother with them.

Monday, May 5, 2008

on the nature of semi-hierarchical networks

I think "semi-hierarchical network" is my coinage, but it is based on the observations of a very large number of people, some of whom write utterly unreadable theory.

So I will not direct anyone to the original unreadability. I'll merely cite rough-and-ready examples.

Networks are semi-hierarchical because inevitably, some contributors are more dominant than others, and influence a larger number of people. But these contributors do not have the dignity of official titles, usually; they simply occupy the nodes of communication through which others get connected. They are the equivalent of those folks in the six-degrees-of-separation model, the one in which you only have to go through six successive individuals to find anybody on earth. (The flaw in this model is that having once met, let's say, Dave Hickey does not mean that Dave Hickey remembers who you are, or remembers the person you need to find. The two on either end of the network both remember meeting Dave Hickey, but he probably mislaid both your business cards, or cannot recall why he has an e-mail address written on the back of an envelope. So you are connected to the person at the other end of the network, but the person who "knows" both of you, or more accurately who both of you know, is of no help whatsoever.)

Nonetheless, networks work, and they are a little bit like the old Silk Road: People communicate who never meet one another, and they communicate via intermediaries as well as via posted messages on blogs or websites. One part of the network only occasionally knows what is up with other parts of the network, because they only check in on them when it's directly relevant to their immediate needs or concerns.

[Pages of illustrations.]

Rigidly hierarchical structures the world over are being replaced by loose collectives that may all work for a single corporate entity, but that get the job done through communications that never filter through a single centralized source. This makes it possible, unfortunately, for a few ambitious traders to collapse entire investment firms by buying up half the futures contracts on the planet, but it also allows for the flourishing of more modest enterprises, such as reporting adequate on Atlanta art.

Now, anarchists will get all excited about this because it is a model of cooperation like what some folks fantasized back in the day, but the point is that present-day subterranean subcultures and mainstream multinationals have an embarrassing number of things in common when it comes to using semi-hierarchical networks. And the folks who insist upon a rigidly hierarchical the-buck-stops-here mentality are being left behind by the more fluid, adaptive folks.

The problem with being fluid and adaptive is that liquidity flows. (That's a joke on "flows of capital" that takes us back to the current global financial crises, where we will not go right now. We are talking about art, and I recommend folks read Kevin Phillips' Bad Money for some insight on how the world got into its present fix.)

People's natural tendency to be self-destructive and behave like dysfunctional idiots and be aggressively self-aggrandizing does have to be addressed and restrained. Otherwise you do get the biggest egos and the biggest loudmouths drowning out the other voices.

So even self-organizing networks have to establish rules and regulations as unforeseen problems arise. And in a loosely networked community, it is hard to establish how the "hierarchical" part of "semi-hierarchical" plays out.

And that takes us out of the world of global finance and global politics, about which whole books have been written. (I have deliberately not referred to Certain Well-Known Organizations of the past half-century that have proven difficult to deal with because they have no fixed center, a shifting network of people in charge, and indeed entire sub-networks that barely even do more than share the goals and strategies of the original network. But forty years ago, a great search for a nonexistent center of control never did turn up the expected location against which a knockout blow could be directed. And Robert D. Kaplan's Imperial Grunts has some interesting observations about the consequences of the lesson that strategists learned from that futile quest.)

No, it brings us back to the question of how you get a bunch of maverick individuals who write about art to find a way to write about art in a location where lots of people will actually want to read it, because they will not have to wade through things like this arcane essay about semi-hierarchical networks, and can just find out what's cool to go to this week and why, in a post written by a person whose opinion they trust.

explaining my very obscure idea once again

I find that my ideas are almost invariably misunderstood in terms of the ideas that people already have. This is probably because, as with the late Marshall McLuhan, there is something wrong with the ideas I have, and something right with the received ideas already out there for generations on end.

But I’m surprised that, thus far, nobody has gotten the point of my collectively edited continuous anthology of the Best of the Atlanta Blogs (let’s use AJC cutesiness, shall we?).

The problem: how to overcome our natural tendency to self-promotion, and to be excessively pleased with our own ideas. (Witness my championing of this one.)

The proposed solution: A modestly elitist (nobody who doesn’t write SOMETHING about art can nominate stuff) compilation of the best blog posts of the day. But nobody can put up their own stuff: that is what they do on their own blogs.

No, they can only post (or post a link if they can’t get the technology down, which I probably will not be able to) whatever they find of particular interest in blog posts by other Atlanta writers.

The editors: all the bloggers. The moderator: serves only to mediate disputes about legitimacy of posts, and otherwise has no more rights than the rest of the collective.

The collective: is not organized, but self-organizing; members get to know one another because they read each other, even if they never meet. New members come on board by getting in touch with the blogger most compatible to themselves, via the comments section of the relevant blog. The comment says, “I’ve started my own blog, take a look and see if you like anything.”

Possible disputes: One blogger genuinely loves somebody else’s blog so much that they simply transfer the entire long-winded contents to this hypothetical anthology site. Two best friends, neither of whom can write and neither of whom have anything to say, simply post one another’s logorrhea to the site.

Resolution of this is open to discussion, because it’s where communities of any sort break down. Ideally, the requirement that the posts have something to do with art and its contemporary condition would at least limit the excesses. It might be permissible to have friends write and post one-line summaries such as “Joculum is blathering about the New York Review of Books again over on his blog. Check it out.”

But the main issue is to address the problem that most people have lives. They simply are not going to click through two dozen URLs a day to see what the bloggers are up to.

But the bloggers are, in this underserved art community, the closest thing to a network of art reviewers that we have. Other cities around the world have websites in which unpaid reviewers post large quantities of reviews and analytical previews, in formats organized by editors.

In a city where even the working critics (unless they have other, non-critic duties) get paid by the column, not by the month, and where expense accounts for automobile travel or MARTA fares are unheard of, there is no one who has the spare time to be a webzine editor, not if they want to attempt to see all the art about which the unpaid critics are writing.

[I say "writing" because some people can only access this stuff at work, where there simply is not time to listen to a video of unknown length, much less a bunch of videos. And we have two websites already that post almost nothing but video interviews about Atlanta exhibitions, so another video site seems superfluous.]

A semi-hierarchical network seems like the only solution. And it needs to be in a format that the technologically semi-literate can handle. (Facebook has been suggested. Can non-Facebook members access all the posts on a Facebook group? Remember, this is for the general public to read, not just us blog-type folks, and some of the general public have enough trouble just remembering not to type "www" before they type the blog name and the blog hoster. Every week somebody tells me they can't find my blogs for that reason.)

And because I would like someone to give me the correct term for which I am using “semi-hierarchical network,” I am going to write some posts about the rise of semi-hierarchical networks in the 21st century and why they have both intended and unintended consequences.

But for once I shall try not to lump them all into a single post.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

like ships that cross or collide in the night

border crossings of all sorts, Atlanta version

Friday was one of the most counter of counterforce days I’ve had in a while in Atlanta.

Sheila Pree Bright’s Young Americans images of folks aged 18-25 performing symbolic feats with the American flag is one of those High Museum exhibitions that will get more than adequate press coverage locally and nationally. I thus resist the temptation to report on the press tour in this particular post.

But in accordance with the hard fact that if I miss one press opening at the High I may not get back until the next press opening, I took the occasion to view the final weekend of “Georgia O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle” and “TRANSactions”…two shows that should have gotten different coverage from the relative invisibility in which they have been placed (though bloggers have supplemented local media).

The latter show of Latino and Latin American art contains the mash-up of Warhol and R. Crumb “Keep On Crossing” posters that other bloggers have commented upon. But the major point to be made is that the manifesto on Crossing covers all contingencies…the borders are infinite, the crossings too many to number, and the action of crossing constant. We are not separated only by political or ethnic or linguistic borders.

So I feel impelled to cross a few borders of history, race, class, age and gender in this post, quickly.

I may have to contribute a post to joculum (where John Crowley’s fans are into fantasy illustration) about the need for a full-length study of Pamela Colman Smith…the non-catalogue for the exhibition forces Smith into a methodological mold that ill suits her and is not reflected in the show itself. The tantalizing wall text suggests that she adapted a Jamaican heritage that may or may not have been hers (? the text is strangely dismissive of her self-willed exoticism) to her own purposes, as she adapted Beethoven and Baring-Gould and the whole symbolist-decadent milieu within which she moved before Stieglitz exhibited her watercolors, then discarded her when it became evident she couldn’t be fitted into the emerging modernist mold. She lived in London at one point and produced the familiar A. E. Waite Tarot deck, which is part of the exhibition along with some remarkably symbolist watercolors that are replaced in the “Women of the Stieglitz Circle” book by ones that make points the author wishes to make.

Pamela Colman Smith, a rather mysterious border-crosser, deserves better. There is a catalogue from a 1975 Princeton exhibition that seems to be utterly unobtainable, at first search. Thanks to the Rider-Waite Tarot, there is an entire PCS website about her career including her actual Jamaican experience (already more useful than the exhibition wall text) that seems to indicate a biography may be in the works (but if so, it’s been in the works for a very long time):

Another crosser of borders was at Tew Galleries last night, Olena Zvyagintseva, whose grandiosely described “important new paintings” really are, within their limited genre. If one has suffered through sufficient flower paintings, Z’s Ukraine-based productions are stunners. Z herself is in the States from Kiev for only two weeks, courtesy of her U.S. art rep who is also her translator.

And that brings me, one week after, to Abby Banks and the Punk Houses photos at Get This! Gallery, which also cross several boundaries of culture and state lines and publication history simultaneously. Her book of documentary photos, enabled by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, went through an interesting cover redesign from the first illustration on a punk-culture website to the listing on (the design of the book as published, available for sale at Get This!).

There is much that could be said about all of these topics but there is never time to do so.

other others and other discussions of such matters as...

...race, class, gender and physiology.

I usually reserve my commentaries on the New York Review of Books’ new issue for my blog, where it fits into a year and a half of growing commentary on the human condition and its discontents.

But since all the readers of joculum already know what I am going to say, I offer this as a quick contribution to the nonexistent dialogue of Counterforces.

I remain fascinated with the implicit editorial interests of NYRB and how often the publication combines its progressive politics with its assumption that the literate politically committed individual needs to be up on the alterations of science and of the European cultural inheritance at the same time as the basics of the postcolonial debate, race, class, gender, and physiology alongside traditional academic disciplines with a little street organizing thrown in alongside modestly revisionist art history.

I want to skip over a good many topics and just mention ever so briefly the juxtaposition of the review essay on Herodotus…the Father of Cultural Studies as much as Thucydides is the Father of Neo-Conservative Politics, as witness who likes to read which (and I, for the record, bogged down on Thucydides freshman year of college and Have Always Meant to Get Round to Reading the other)…to have that more or less next to a quick overview of the way in which the study of chimpanzees influenced the politically loaded discussions of human nature and the degree to which genetic inheritance can be counterbalanced by the adaptability that those critical few genetic differences bestowed upon the human species…and to wind up the issue with a survey of Michel de Certeau, in some depth. Certeau is another one of those cultural theorists more cited than read, in part because his issues have also been raised in part by a good many Anglo-American thinkers, some of whom actually engaged in dialogue with his contributions to the global conversations he helped shape. (I typed “conservations,” and readers of joculum will know I always record my Freudian Typos even when they seem to be merely mechanical.)

Certeau is interested in how otherness gets shaped, and his discussions of the Other seem a whole lot more relevant to the actual conditions of history than all those other Others that led to the discussion of how other we should let the Other be because after all, he she or it was Other.

Human beings, as Herodotus’ infinite curiosity was wont to reveal, like exotica about as much as they hate it. Cultures go to great lengths to enhance or suppress the natural human tendency (yes, natural, goddamn it) to take an interest in the unfamiliar or to be sensibly or excessively afraid that the unfamiliar might be injurious.

Clever purveyors of Otherness in cycles of trade from distant antiquity onward have known how to market themselves as entertaining curiosities with something worth buying, rather than dreaded potential adversaries to be cut down on sight. Unfortunately, the would-be marketers have seldom known all the rules of the new game, and countless thousands have been cut down on sight anyway. A smaller number have been welcomed on arrival as long-expected missing pieces of the others’ cultural puzzle, only to have the others perceive their self-interested scams a bit too late.

NYRB likes to publish lots of examples of cultural collisions in which both parties felt certain that the other was disrespecting them. (This makes its reportage on Iraq particularly interesting.) With that in mind, we might want to circle round from Certeau’s histories of the reception of otherness of all sorts, and re-read Sanford Schwartz’s essay on Frida Kahlo’s painting The Suicide of Dorothy Hale with which the issue begins. And then re-read George Soros’ take on the global economic crisis, and make our way back down the table of contents.

Usually I am incapable of reading an issue without posting about six thousand words of theoretical interconnections. But joculumites already know the conclusions I am going to draw, and usually don’t bother to read them.

Friday, May 2, 2008

towards a counterforces online journal

The sheer volume of responses to Daniel Canogar’s appearance in Atlanta have been of great interest.

One hopeful sign has been the recognition of Canogar’s sources in terms of his dazzling but semi-derivative pieces. The operative word being “semi,” since Canogar’s level of innovation is praiseworthy in any case.

Bloggers recognized early on that his most interesting innovation comes in the fiber optic pieces, splendidly klugy (I am so pleased to have had the engineering term “kluge” handed to me in the past week…to signify an interim, cobbled-together technical solution that works well enough for the job intended, sort of like what Claude Levi-Strauss meant by his adaptation of the French term bricolage).

Canogar’s Photoshopped piles of accumulated crap derive from the various photos of Chinese and Third World stacks of recyclable electronics and from various recent projects that involve metaphors that make visible the sheer quantity of waste generated by late industrial society. But it takes skill to Photoshop that well without having the seams show when the digital photos are enlarged to that degree. (I myself, a bricoleur devotee of the interim solution, probably spent hours blurring thin lines of pixels when there is one tool that would fix the seam problem, but I see enough poorly resolved solutions, the artfully blurry image included, that a job well done is worth celebrating.)

Incidentally, I was intrigued by the news that the popular imagination, on the level of the art-ignorant public, now reads analog photography as unacceptably soft-focus. Is it really true that folks on Flickr prefer the saturated shades of color associated with the Canon digital camera? I don’t waste a lot of time reading comments on such sources, but historians of cultural history need to do so and apparently do.

Canogar’s climbing/crawling video projections in buildings made me realize with pleasure that the genre has come a long way since those gee-whiz days when one still image projected for hours on the side of one bujilding was enough to keep people mesmerized for hours. Then we had versions that were not much better than showing a movie on a blank brick wall, such as alternative spaces in Atlanta have done for decades. Now the genre has grown up, proving once again that it is not the technology that matters, it is the quality of imagination of the user. And the imagination is not a matter of originality but of the ability to see what is being done globally and adapting it adroitly to local circumstances.

It is the “adroitly” part as well as the “local circumstances” part that is the basis of what I like to call the counterforces aesthetic. It needs to be original by virtue of the adaptation to the locale and to local traditions and materials; it needs to be adroit by virtue of the skill and intelligence of the maker. And it needs to be mistaken easily for provincial by the forces of globalizing culture.

And as for local circumstances when it comes to blogs? The links among the growing number of art blogs in Atlanta alone suggest a model for a semi-edited coordination of effort.

Each blogger could (but need not) invite other bloggers to post guest essays on their sites. For few outside the blogging community have the time to read ALL those blogs on all those different blog host sites.

But even easier would be a simple variation on the currently next to useless collective blogs.

Start ONE MORE BLOG that had a very simple ground rule.

Akin to Arts & Letters Daily, it would be an anthology of Atlanta blogs.

Each post would be something that one blogger or another found of particular value or interest on someone else's Atlanta blog. It could be posted with commentary.

But the one rule would be that NO ONE COULD POST THEIR OWN ORIGINAL PIECE. A piece could only be posted if someone else who writes regularly about Atlanta art found that the piece contributed to the dialogue in a way they found interesting.

And the blogger posting the anthology piece could only comment in the comments box, like everybody else.

Theoretically, two best friends could continually post each other's blogs in their entirety, but that could be handled by a simple rule: three nuanced favorable comments by arm's length members of the community would be required if a dispute arises over someone's right to post to the publication. Collective editorial responsibility.

I know that discussions of nomadism and of deconstructed networks are, like, so 1980s, but that doesn't mean that the model itself is out of date. By contrast, it appears to be coming into its own.