Drones and Airplanes

At first, I actually find doing all this drone research and listening kind of like being on a long flight where you forgot your kindle. All around you is a beautiful atmosphere of clouds, but there’s a psychological wall of repeated forms of the window seats that make it a thick, slothlike mental experience. I exist for experimental music and art, but also sometimes it’s a little hard to take. All this drone wasn’t meant to be listened to at once. Yet, listening to so much of it at one time really makes some drone music special.

Each attempt at making a drone is highly personal, with an almost sonic identification of personal histories of each of the performers. John Cale’s Sun Blindness Music is so much like 60s rock music, just in it’s distorted sound and occasional, sporadic sound clusters, which do not change from the more psychedelic signature of the synthesis tools used to create it. There is very little alteration of tones and little richness to explore in the textures. I found I couldn’t listen to it for very long intently, and then moved more away from deep listening into background music.

I can’t say the same thing happened listening to La Monte Young’s work. His work contains many of the drone “hits”. Drone “hits” won’t make you sing in the shower, but you might just hum. It’s not an impossible effect. Everything I listened to by Young was transfixing. I first listened to The Well Tuned Piano, which I, on recommendation, listened to loudly on headphones, I was never distracted. I held on to each note, each chord as a vital and immediate experience. The performance was nuanced and you could tell the deep listening from moment to moment. It was improvisational, but with a logic to it. It felt like a global crossing of classical forms, finding a commonality in the just intonation system, and a kind of alap in sections before becoming more dense, in a wave of recurrence as the piece unfolded over a five hour period. This is hyperbole, but it may be the most impactful recording I have heard since John Coltrane’s Love Supreme. Coming to a revelation like this was unexpected, especially to someone who has heard so much before it.

The interesting thing about feeling in violation or wrong in listening to music like this all day, was that I almost felt like I was doing something dangerous and unhealthy, like being in an opium den all day. In defense, I allowed the afternoon to deep cleaning the apartment, but this impulse I found important. It really revealed that listening to drone was actually revolutionary.

It challenges the common view of life as being justified by usefulness to the society. Just like my interest in poetry, this is an entrance into a field of view that allows things to just be, not be used for something, but just experiencing something. And that’s where the innovation is. This is music that makes you stop. It makes you listen completely for minute changes as they happen. You start to listen to microtones, to subtle changes in texture.

I’ve often thought that Western Experimental music could be completely summed up as an academic colonialist exercise of appropriation of world culture. Wasn’t Young a capitalist colonizing an Indian Gharana? But at this fundamental level, the forces of world culture combine in part, not in total, as in many forms of “World Music” that reveals their essential qualities, and sublimate simple frequencies in an incredible celebration of the mundane. We can look out the window at the clouds, despite whatever destination we have.

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The White Album

I’ve been trying to find a way to write about Arthur Jaffa’s White Album, but every time I think of racism as a topic I literally feel like I’m staring at an impossible mountain. I don’t have any answers or thoughts on how the situation can improve, and just like everyone on the planet I know that we’re an extremely divided culture; at home, but also, definitely all around the world. There have been so many examples of deep racism, some life threatening or even life destroying, leaving nothing in their wake but anger, sadness, questions, and outrage, all absolutely valid responses. I think for my part, I just feel helpless, as I view from a relatively safe and egalitarian (on the surface only) community in the East Bay. But how egalitarian is it? I think it is obvious that there are institutions that foster racism, and we need to look at power structures in a critical way, since so many things in our culture shape the views of otherness.

It was with that questioning that I watched Jaffa’s The White Album. The White Album is a long form collection of videos, mostly from what I could tell from YouTube, that was in a particular corner of the Biennale. It was a large room, with a long bench for sitting, and it was usually filled, but not overcrowded with people. I say “usually” because during our trip I went back to try to see the entire piece three times. I still didn’t get through all of it, but what I saw was vital to my continued learning and the responsibility we all have to look at the concept of otherness.

In a perfect example of views of the artist that I have been taught in contemporary art schools, this is a work that foregrounds the role of research, and also of the archive, in contemporary art. The research presented and curated by Jaffa from internet searches combines films of whiteness, or the concept of whiteness, as a method of inquiry and contemplation that sublimates its original sources. In this careful combination of video across genres, ranging from personal vlogs, music video, documentary and youTube clips, something transcendent occurs. It’s a kind of questioning that asks us about our experiences, and otherness, in the deepest way I could have imagined. Much of it is shocking, and I absolutely feel that it is deserving of its award during the Biennale.

I can’t offer a complete criticism of the piece, since on multiple attempts at watching it in its entirety, I still missed a lot, and on one occasion, on a time limit, saw almost exactly what I had seen the day before. I also don’t think I want to actually say what the piece contained, since my response to it was so direct, and it said more than I can say just through it’s being. That’s the best thing about art. It can transcend the written word, and sometimes can only be described by seeing it. And if I could name the most impactful piece I saw at the Biennale this is it.

Venice Biennale: Really Brief Intro

It’s difficult for me to think of anything in the Venice Biennial as separate from the exhibition as a whole. There were hundreds of fantastic works all throughout, with a few that really caught my attention, but it’s hard for me to focus on a single one. I’m still trying to find a single work to focus on as a first critique, but I think I should really talk about what it was like to go to the Biennale for the first time.

The Venice Biennale consists of individual pavilions for each country, as well as an overall exhibition that includes all of the artists at once. The promise of the biennale is that while remaining separate and distinct, the countries all come together in one overall, genre blending, mesmerizingly chaotic central exhibition.

Just thinking ideologically, I didn’t respond to the country-specific pavilions as much as I responded to the group as a whole, but it’s possible that it absolutely had to be that way. Each serves as a counterpoint against the other, in a shifting dialog of particularity and universal, a combination that celebrates a living archive of inclusion and separation.

I know the biennale had its own methodology, but my approach here is to write about it only from my point of view. Beside’s the overall theme of the Biennale was incredibly vague. It was called “May You Live in Interesting Times”, which honestly could be the same as a phrase like “Stuff Happens”, or “Being with Things.” Which is bizarre considering how important and pressing our needs are as a global community at this moment. To me the things that mattered most were works that focused on climate, oppression, racism, and modern spirituality.

Over the next few weeks I will focus on the Lithuanian Pavilion: Sun and Sea, Shilpa Gupta’s For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit, Korakrit Arunanondchai’s With History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names, and Arthur Jafa’s White Album.

Flower Pavilion

When we went to the Venice Biennale, we booked a small apartment to stay at for a few days while we checked out the city and the art at the international exhibition. The apartment was an artists small studio. There was an open window that was a visual entrance to the rest of the small neighborhood. There were hardly any people on the street, and it felt incredibly peaceful. The apartment was welcoming, with familiar decor that we would expect from any artist/designers. There was a Rocky Horror poster on the wall. There was a futura poster on the refrigerator.

The dominant colors of the apartment were red and white, subtly mirrored in the architectural facades of the surrounding buildings, which were muted tones with warm inflections, almost any color except the cool end of the spectrum. 

It was an unassuming neighborhood, which was very calm, and definitely a local neighborhood. It felt like we were the only visitors, and later at a restaurant in the neighborhood, I was at my most mondo-touristy and got an interesting look of disapproval from the staff at first, which was slowly processed into a great experience. The barrier was there.

From what I understand, Venice is almost entirely without Venetians at this point. It is specifically a site for tourism. I was told this when talking to our host in Rome about our travels, and while I thought her stories were anecdotal about Venice, they turned out to be absolutely  true.

On our first walk into the Venice city center, we saw a massive cruise ship that was one of the sources of hyper tourism. The streets were overrun with tourists. It was a perfect example of tourism completely overtaking a town. Luckily our stay in Venice was in a quiet outpost of local Venetians on the end of the city, where toward the end of the day you could see young and old alike, gathered around the benches and small, humble green spaces no larger than a quarter of a city block, in central nexus of the anonymous streets, drinking wine from the bottle, and enjoying life in a quiet atmosphere with distant sounds of the rest of the city echoing softly among birdsong and low volume radio frequencies. 

The biennale was only a few blocks down the street, and I couldn’t help but feel like we were intruders into this peaceful environment. I went frequently to the biennale, and experienced some incredible art that I may find time to write about, but I am more interested in what I came to call the Flower Pavilion in the hallway of our apartment building.

In the foyer of the apartment building, a series of mailboxes and slightly dirty walls, yet clean and cared for, lined the hallway. There were dark steps leading up to the apartments, but this entrance was fascinating in it’s “everyday” appearance. But I looked closely at it. On the left wall, when walking in, there was a series of three reproductions of paintings in ordinary frames, all done by the same artist, without attribution. They were small, and hung in different levels of vertical space, separated by uneven spaces between the reproductions. These paintings were likely pulled from an old magazine. They were too glossy to be printed from a computer. They looked like they could have been there for twenty, or even thirty years. They were slightly faded from the soft, almost faint light from windows at the tops of the north and south walls, creating an even level of sunlight through the rest of the room.

This was a fascinating record of peace and stability, possibly disappearing, as travelers like us replaced families and local culture. It was a gentle reminder of the hyper commodification of the central shelters of an endangered community, with the specter of the cultural violence of the biennale spiraling through the rest of venice in clustered pavilions, as well as repurposed sites through the rest of Venice. Yet this was a folk curation, a moment of simple expression, for the sake of it, and there for the community of the apartment building to have a gentle experience while checking their mail. 

What can we learn about the everyday? It is just as artful and designed as all of the other visual media in our cultures. We have simply become desensitized as we choose a site of neutrality based on frequency of experiences from which to base the rest of our observations and interactions within various spheres of visual and intellectual experiences.  Perhaps this is the true white cube, a site of the ordinary as neutrality that begs for the endotic, a gesture of momentary exoticism that changes our perception, and makes us become aware of where we are. Small offering of natural beauty, standing for half a human lifetime, stand in defiance of the coming wave of tourists that will eventually take Venice over in total, with this beautiful community displaced, in the name of temporary culture. It was great to experience the peace of this neighborhood for a brief moment, as Venice slips into cultural hegemony, and into the waters of the lagoon, and the dark absence of memory as the city floods, and is swept out into the surrounding ocean, perhaps creating a reef of human experiences, an artifact to be reveled by expeditions far into the future, as peaceful as the gentle river of sunlit afternoons in the park with conversation, love and gentleness. 

Painting from Stone

Of all of the experiences I had with design and art on this last trip to Rome, this particular moment was possibly the most impactful. I was quickly walking through the museum, more likely to get a view of the entire collection, a strategy i learned while I was studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Instead of focusing on individual works, I would rapidly move through the museum frequently, since we had a free pass every day to the museum while at school there. Of course, I would, on some days, spend time with individual works, but it was really cool to essentially just run through the entire space, cutting through tourists and darting through entire epochs of human history. It really changed my view of art. Art was something to be seen in the entire context of human history, not just technique and individual intentions of artists.

In this spirit, I moved so quickly through the experience in Italy that I began to completely ignore the works of art in and of themselves. Most of the photos I took were of walls, architectural details, and then when I saw this hand painted typeface, I was completely transfixed. I can’t remember the name of the artist who made this, or of the rest of the subject of the painting. It was an essentially 17th Century painting. It looked Delft, but probably was just dark for the sake of it. It was definitely Italian.

The font has a flourish at the beginning, in a small gold cloud like spiral, which interacts with the frame of the work itself. I wondered if the frame was chosen before the type was made on top of it, and if the type was made by the same painter of the scene. It was a roman font, echoed in the rest of the city by Roman inscriptions. It feels imperial, chiseled and elegant, and it is really interesting how much restraint it is being used in by being painted in oil.

In theory, a painted, hand drawn font could literally be anything. It could be wild and flowing. It could have incredibly flourished and expressive initial caps like an Ed Fella poster, but here it is so restricted. This was not a lazy type decision, and must be looked at from this vantage point. It is an absolute exercise of power from the state to the artist, with normative type emphasized. It’s interesting that we saw this in the same site that has some of the earliest forms of graffiti, which are now so much more common in our culture. A freedom of line and expression must not have been in this case extended to the artist.

I’m fascinated by the control that the hand painted type has in its delicate lines, mimicking the physical restrictions chiseled type would have had simply because of the way the chisel works against stone when making a serif. This is neoclassicism in a nutshell: a specimen of philosophy and dedicated control. It’s beautiful, but there’s a sense of conformity and utopianism apparent in this delicate font on the surface. The moment that for me that strikes a balance with these concerns though, is the craftsmanship of the ornamental frame and the flourish, the mathematical spiral that is rendered with emotion and care, a delicate moment that kept me looking for detail throughout the rest of my time in Italy.

Fortnum and Mason Diamond Jubilee

One of our strategies, or even an antistrategy, was just deciding an area of interest and walking to it rapidly. We didn’t do that much research before, so instead of going to a physical manifestation of a photograph we had previously seen, much was a complete surprise.

Our journey to Fortum and Mason, a department store older than the United States happened this way. We made reservations, but we didn’t know what to expect. London is really busy. The London Underground doesn’t say “mind the gap” anymore. Instead, a stressed out robotic voice comes on and asks you to fill any physical unit of space in the train with another person. It is so packed. It reminds me of Bart, maybe of everywhere right now. We walked. We saw so much history. It could all be a thousand years old, but it’s still in perfect condition. We found our way into the Knights Templar Church. There were literal casts of knights, sculpted in repose, that just sat there in the modern world. It was quiet, and then a recording of chanting came on. If sculptures are immortal, it must feel really weird to be unable to do anything but listen to tour guides and recordings of monks. They charged for admission. We paid.

Then we whisked through the city streets, catching glimpses of dragon statues, more knights, ancient taverns. Also really ordinary bars. They all just sit side by side. It felt like minutes but was probably about an hour of traveling time.

When we got to Fortnum and Mason, it instantly reminded me of being in a mall when I was very young. This was just a really, really old mall. It was packed, and we climbed the creaking stairs up to the top floor. I should add that the floors creaked, but they felt like they were so solid in their creaking voice. It felt like they were prepared to be there a very, very long time. It’s hard to believe sometimes that anything is going to last very long now, but this stairwell made a case for the shopping experience. Even at the end of the world, there will probably be some shopping.

At the top of the stairs we opened into a room with a piano player who looked stressed out playing frenetic, but very ordinary classical music. It looked like the worst job I could imagine. The look on his face made me think he felt the same way too. It’s hard to listen to something when the player looks that uncomfortable. Maybe he doesn’t even like classical music, but hey, it’s a living.

We were called and were led into an extremely designed environment of light powder blue and orangish pink. These colors dominated the entire experience. The table was white, and on top of the table were two pastel red/orange flowers in a red transparent vase. There was a small light to the side, which had a warm glow that was rhythmically divided as creases in the shade overlapped. It was one of the most incredible arrangements of color I have seen in a long time. It was overpowering. It completely controlled the experience.

I was slightly, probably very, underdressed. A lot of the participants in the room were in formal wear. I was in an indie comic t shirt. I think it was fine. It’s definitely a local spot for birthdays and special occasions, but also for tourists and I saw much more infringing dress code violations so I thought it was OK. Should I be this concerned with the dress code? Obviously not, but I did respect the limitations of the environment. It feels really ritualistic. But still improvisational. It was really interesting from an experience standpoint.

Our specialist chose the teas for us. They told me they had selected the strongest, blackest tea for me, Irish Breakfast, and then my partner received a story about Queen Anne that kind of pissed her off. She wanted the strong black tea too.

That’s what was really interesting for me though. The Queen of England opened the tea shop in the 2000s, and there was definitely a transference of the monarchy into an imbibing liquid for many of the visitors to the tea shop. In this case, it was almost like the Queen was existing in the tea itself, and becoming each new drinker of the tea, becoming one with their histories, the monarchy, and the nation. The design choices present in the room made something apparent. If design is the central communicative language of power, it can be used for almost anything.

This mirrors many of the concerns of the trip about modernism, especially the miasma of rationalism and egalitarianism present in the design that could be used for a much different purpose, as in its employment in fascist Germany in the war. As our teacher pointed out so much, the Bauhaus educators and designers were not exempt from the corrupting forces of the state.

God Save the Tea.

Forests

One thing I never expected is how much like a forest Roman architecture is. The classical columns, white against grey, are like skeletons revealed inside decayed trees, like a bone structure of imposed mathematics preserved for centuries. If our world is destroyed, maybe these forms will be the only thing that serves as a reminder of the life that was once here. It’s a skeletal form of abstraction, the mediation of the human mind inside of the natural world, linked and transformational.

On a long walk in the sweltering heat, we were introduced to something that I didn’t expect. The sun was beating down on the open plazas, and the only place to take shelter was from the long shadows that were made by the column onto the rest of the surface of the environment. I saw a man slumped up to the side of one of the columns, that might have been the repose of a pastoral scene of country life. But here it was body against stone, in momentary shade. Grand architectural statements having an immediate sheltering need. I never thought of Roman architecture as shelter. I always thought of it as some kind of authority.

In the bay, during the heatwave, we tried to strategize going to places that might have air conditioning. Should we go to a library? Should we go to a movie theater? But not once did we think to go to the most ancient and monumental forms we could to use the immediate shelter from the sun. I’m not even sure what they would have been.