The last Alienated column: Unicity

This was the final column in my long run at Matrix magazine, which appeared in issue 94, on “New Winnipeg Writing.” Admittedly, it’s an example of what my friend Christian would call “melted Popsicle realism,” but it got me thinking about how postmodernity might not even leave ruins to contemplate.

Unicity = space ark. Roger Huyssen’s cover for the first Boston album appears in the front window of YES THIS IS SAM THE RECORD MAN less than a year after the mall opens: domed saucer cities in flight from a dying Earth. Everything gone by 2000. A circle of earth berms and a great plain of fused asphalt to mark where it settled, then rose, diminishing.

Difficult to convey the brownness of it now. Chocolate brown brick exterior and powder-coated brown aluminum trim, high-gloss brown ceramic floor tiles, a profusion of brown and orange injection-molded plastic stools and brown mushroom-shaped tables in the food court. Ficus trees in brown plastic planters. Brown food: the first MCDONALD’S installed inside a mall in Canada. Paper boats of fries and gravy from LUCKY FRIED CHICKEN, lunchtime staple for generations of children drifting in from Hedges Junior High across the street, maroon ringette jackets, denim, Players Light, feathered hair and blue eyeshadow, harassed by mall cops in brown polyester uniforms for not leaving fast enough.

Imagine these things before they were coated with a thick layer of irony: Lava lamps. Nastassja Kinski wearing a Burmese python. Dungeons & Dragons Basic Edition. Vinyl Adidas bags. Star Wars figures, when there was only one movie. Lemon gin. Banana clips. Painter pants. Iron-on t-shirts. White Nike All-courts. Acid wash. Big Wheels and Green Machines. Braun cordless curling irons. Black velvet DoodleArt posters. Pontiac Firebirds. Atari 2600. Cassette decks with woodgrain finish (brown). Concentrated into one physical location and lost in a sea of other objects, all new, gleaming, superior. Desire, focused and channeled and redirected by omnipresent mirror tiles.

The girl in LAURA SECORD, too beautiful to speak with unless I bought ice cream. The girls in fuzzy Adidas shorts (red and blue) and pompom socks who sat with me on the mall benches and giggled, then mocked me later behind my back. The girl in ORANGE JULIUS who gave me her phone number then wouldn’t talk to me when I called. The girl in SMITTY’S who held my hand and played me Ratt’s “Round and Round,” then married someone when she was barely 18. Double-date rides in downtown glass elevators with a work friend from BOOTLEGGER, until her sad, funny, brilliant boyfriend hanged himself, and then again after she almost married my brother. The girl who let me slip my hand under her bra late at night, sitting on the sound barrier past the parking lot. The girl in DALMY’S my friend Bruce swore squirted aerosol whipped cream all over him and then licked it off. The girl in centre court I didn’t recognize because her jaw was wired shut and her arms and legs were broken after their car flipped on the Perimeter Highway while driving drunk with a guy from the Downs, a girl I played caps with until 2 am and probably kissed, or at least tried to kiss.

The places I walked by without looking too closely. The garbage compressor and transformer room, electrical hum and sickly-sweet stench of ORANGE JULIUS cups. LADY FOOT LOCKER, though I bought a girl one of those braided pink-and-white cotton Olivia Newton-John headbands and some stirrup pants for her birthday once. SHOPPERS DRUG MART, unless buying or stealing rubbers. MARKS AND SPENCER (Why?). The Red Grille Restaurant in WOOLCO, all stained Bunn-o-matics and unwiped counters and people from the old folks’ home eating pie and coffee. I want to write that the pies were in cabinets with angled mirrors behind them so that you could see what was on offer, but can’t say for sure.

Fall, when the Buffalo Barbecue filled the parking lot. Conklin trucks full of heavy machinery assembled by thin greasy guys with endless caps of hash oil for sale. The Polar Express (Do you want to go FASTER?) and the Tilt-A-Whirl, Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky” on endless repeat. The jingle of change hitting the pavement from people’s pockets as their gondolas turned upside down. Bison burgers. Feathered earrings and Judas Priest t-shirts. And the first place I ever saw anyone break-dance.

When they added the LC to the back of the mall, the first trick was not arriving at the same time as our teachers at the end of the day. Since a dozen stubbies fit nicely inside an Adidas bag, box and all, the second trick was keeping the frozen straps on an overstuffed bag from snapping in –35 C weather.

In the absence of a video arcade in the entire west end of the city, playing Choplifter on the Apple II upstairs in THE BAY. The weird kid that WOOLCO let sit in the store every night and program sprite graphics on the Sinclair ZX–81, who probably makes more money than God now.

A guy from my school being hauled away by security after stripping down to his trunks and jumping into a bubbling Jacuzzi on display in the centre courtyard. Two more guys trying to convince security they were shoplifting by running past department store one-way mirrors with their brand-new LED watches flapping out of their back pockets. One more guy eventually becoming a security guard.

COLES THE BOOK PEOPLE. Paperbacks for a buck and a quarter. A science fiction section I knew inside-out because the inventory changed so rarely. Sneaking glances at what passed for dirty books. And where I went to look at pictures of other, bigger cities.

Once a winter, WOOLCO would hire me and about a hundred of my hung-over high-school friends to inventory the entire store on a Sunday morning. Which goes a long way toward explaining why WALMART eventually bought them out, then corroded away the entire mall from within, leaving only a parking lot pocked with big box stores.

An almost total absence of detail about it anywhere on the Web, other than Wikipedia. And there, “This article about a building or structure in Manitoba is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it.” With what, exactly.

There will be no Canadian Heritage Minute for Unicity. There will be no brass plaque. Not a place but a set of corridors between businesses that no longer exist, neither inside nor out, private nor public, a mall is barely there when it’s there. And when it’s gone, it’s not even a ruin, not even a memory, but something like reminiscence: that place where that guy did that thing that time.

Don’t Look Back.

Marshall McLuhan: Philosopher-Poet or Prognosticator?

Peggy Curran of The Montreal Gazette talked to me, Charles Acland and Will Straw about the legacy of Marshall McLuhan. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Wershler contends that those who focus on McLuhan as a technological fortune-teller are missing the point. McLuhan, he says, was really a poet who was at his best conjuring up those “philosophical bumper stickers” for which he is best remembered.

“McLuhan was not a futurist. In fact, the later you get in his work, the crappier it is.” He argues that McLuhan, who had studied at Cambridge University before returning to work at U of T, was probably more familiar than anyone else in Canada at the time with what was happening among modernist writers and artists in Europe in the early part of the 20th century. It was with thoughts of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the poetry of Ezra Pound and the Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso, says Wershler, that McLuhan concocted his phrase ‘probes’ and envisioned the newspaper as a mosaic, where a reader could absorb the world’s events in any particular order or disorder.

Here’s the full article.

Featured Image by John Reeves and Robert Cross, from the story.

Finding Bern Porter

Sometimes the best writers of poetry aren’t poets at all. At such times, the job of the poet isn’t to write poems, but to find them.

The major practitioner of found poetry as poetry was Bern Porter. As Porter’s biographer James Schevill notes, the use of found material is a major component of 20th century art {{1}}, but few writers have devoted the bulk of their career to it, and no one developed the practice to the extent that Porter did. Formally trained as a physicist and engineer, Porter worked both on the development of the cathode ray television tube for the Acheson Colloids Corporation {{2}} and on the electromagnetic separation of uranium for the Manhattan Project in the Physics Department at Princeton {{3}}. On August 8, 1945, the day after the USA dropped an atomic bomb — the fruits of Porter’s labour — on the city of Hiroshima, Porter announced his resignation and never returned to work {{4}}. He subsequently spent much of the rest of his long life developing an expressly pacifist, intermedial, interdisciplinary fusion of scientific and artistic sensibilities that he referred to as “Sciart” {{5}}. The chief results of Sciart were the objects and texts that Porter referred to as “Founds”.

Over the course of Porter’s life, he published four volumes of Founds out of a projected series of seven: Found Poems (Something Else Press, 1972), which Porter wished to call Everybody’s Don’t Book (Dog Ear Press, 1984); and Sweet End (Dog Ear Press, 1989). Founds often include fragments of text, but “many are wordless, stemming from Porter’s insights into technology’s visual appeal” {{6}}. But founds were not just limited to words and images; they could also be objects {{7}}, sounds {{8}}, or even subject positions: “In the end,” writes Schevill, “Porter himself becomes a Found” {{9}}.

Like the objets trouvé of Dada, Surrealism and Merz, Porter’s Founds could be either physical objects or signs on paper. They were sometimes recontextualized without alteration, and sometimes modified in small but significant ways, such as cutting of portions of them away, or, conversely, combining them with other found elements to create a larger synthesis. Yet there are also some important differences between objets trouvé and Founds. Despite the apparent similarities of the objects themselves, they appear within significantly different discursive formations that are separated from each other by two factors: the horrific physical damage and considerable epistemological impact of atomic weaponry, and the rising importance of visuality as an effect of global mass media {{10}}.

Following World War II, Porter spent a considerable amount of time in Japan, especially in Hiroshima, attempting to come to grips with the consequences of his wartime employment. It was during this period that Porter began to make connections between his artistic production and a growing interest in civic planning. In the context of post-nuclear and the building blocks for the construction of a new one. Schevill cites Wastemaker: 1926-1961 (Abyss Publications, 1972) as the most important of Porter’s early collections of Founds. Porter’s comment that he chose the title “to imply not only the careless person who makes waste, but one who “remakes waste, who finds waste that is both significant and beautiful” demonstrates his own ambivalence about this process {{11}}.

To underline the shift in milieu that makes Founds different from objets trouvé, Schevill begins his discussion of Porter’s Founds not with Duchamp, Picasso and Schwitters, but with Tadeusz Kantor’s The Ruins of Odysseus. Kantor staged the play in a bombed-out building in Krakow during the Nazi occupation of Poland in the 1940s. The set decorations consisted entirely of “grotesque fragments of war” — found objects scavenged from the ruins of the city by the play’s cast. For Kantor, who at that point had no knowledge of Duchamp’s Readymades, “When the room was filled with objects, the text of the play lost its importance. What was important was constructing the environment, and the action of finding, choosing, and bringing those objects in” {{12}}. Making sense of Founds, then, will require not a hermeneutics of the object or text, but an analysis of the circumstances of their production, circulation, exchange, and the transfigurations that occur as they change contexts, with particular attention to the social space around them.

from objets trouvé: their imbrication in global media networks. Because of his prewar work on the development of the cathode ray tube and his postwar work at the University of California’s Engineering Materials Laboratory, Porter was acutely aware of the material conditions that brought about this shift in context. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of Porter’s founds expressly engage with mass media forms, especially photography, telephony and the post. For example, like Moholoy-Nagy and Man Ray before him, Porter produced a number of photograms (images created by placing objects directly on photographic paper and them exposing them to light — a kind of cameraless photography). Here again, Schevill argues for a contextual difference:

The process of “snapping a picture,” capturing a certain kind of external light, becomes a battle with an internal light that has burst out of confinement to exert primal force. If Man Ray’s and Moholy Nagy’s [sic] photograms achieved a distinctively decorative quality, Porter’s struggled to show — like Jackson Pollock’s explosive drip paintings that soon followed — the power of a new energy to distort, threaten, and thrill. {{13}}

Similarly, Porter’s The Manhattan Telephone Book 1972 “reveals the lonely anonymity and increasing defensiveness of a system that advertises open, friendly communication” {{14}}. It is in the ambivalence and tension that results from Finding an object and recontextualizing it that a productive critique emerge.

For the first decade of the 21st century, the most visible practitioners of found art have been Davy Rothbart and Jason Bitner, editors of (what else?) FOUND magazine, its accompanying trade publications and its website. The “One snowy winter night in Chicago a few years back, Davy went out to his car and found a note on his windshield — a note meant for someone else, a guy named Mario,” a noted they “loved” so much that they kept it to show to friends. When they began sharing their find, Rothbart and Bitner discovered that their friends had similar objects to show them in return. It was at that point that they “decided to start a magazine called FOUND, a showcase for all the strange, hilarious and heartbreaking things people’ve picked up.” After spending a year collecting materials, “then with scissors and tape we slapped together the first issue of FOUND in June of 2001.” The magazine was, at first, an annual production; the first of several trade books collecting items from the magazine appeared in 2004. “We certainly didn’t invent the idea of found stuff being cool” (Rothbart and Bitner), states the site, but beyond that vague admission, there’s no indication that the basic gesture of their enterprise has been an important technique of cultural production for the last century.

Substituting for the lack of history — or any vestige of critique — in this narrative is a sort of sentimental nostalgia that Fredric Jameson characterizes as one of the hallmarks of the cultural logic of late capitalism in Postmodernism. Nostalgia, argues Jameson, is not about “representing” historical content (including “our own present and immediate past”), but about conveying a sense of “pastness” through the stylistic connotation of physical qualities {{15}}. The love for all the strange, hilarious and heartbreaking things that FOUND has found, then, is a perfect match for their digital layouts of torn scraps of keys secured with adhesive tape that fill its web pages and trade paperback books.

This last point is important because, though FOUND mimicks the production style of the pre-desktop-publishing zines of the 1980s, it is another sort of entity entirely. From its second issue onward, FOUND already imagined itself as a commodity, complete with barcode, seven pages of carefully ironized classified ads, including a FOUND t-shirt and a CD that presage the rang of customizable goodies on the website’s “Merch” page, and, tellingly, a subscription form that is the only pristine, digitally typeset page in the issue. When it comes to selling itself, FOUND has always been all about clarity. The cover of FOUND: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World, the first paperback collection of the magazine (published in 2004), removes all doubt, announcing itself as “The National Bestseller.”

As Jameson contends, the commodity is the “other face” of postmodern nostalgia, and it exerts a powerful bidirectional influence. As simulacra like FOUND emerge, nostalgia reaches back and transforms early editions of the works of the Dadaists, Surrealists, Porter and even the first few issues of FOUND from historical documents into coveted collectors’ editions that fetch magnitudes more than their original cover prices on eBay and ABEBooks. As “a bit of yuppie furnishing,” they are every bit as contemporary as their networked digital duplicates. The latter also continue to transform, foregrounding themselves “as language and as communication (rather than as artistic production in any older sense)”, connecting “the omnipresence of the media as such” to the entire assemblage {{16}}. It should come as no surprise, then, that editor Davy Rothbart has parlayed his reputation from FOUND into a career not as an artist, but as a radio and print journalist, regularly contributing to public radio’s This American Life (again, selections of which can be purchased as a double CD from the magazine’s website) and a range of leading periodicals, including The Believer, High Times, The New Yorker and The New York Times, among others.

… but the chain of dialectical transformations doesn’t stop there. Borrowing from the vocabulary of communication and cultural theorist Raymond Williams, Jameson notes that the historical elements caught up in and transformed by a postmodern digital frame can “slowly take on the positive and active values of conscious resistance, as choices and symbolic acts that now repudiate the dominant poster-and-decorative culture and thereby assert themselves as something emergent rather than something residual” {{17}}. Out of the digital textual echoes of a revolutionary analog avant-garde past, it may be possible to imagine a utopian future. Jameson is quick to point out that there are no guarantees that any such utopia will ever materialize out of the incessant formation and destruction of assemblages of various signs, discourses, subjects and objects caught in the cultural ferment, but a provocative question arises. What happens when we start discussing possibilities instead of the already accomplished? What happens if we start to consider the problem from the point of view of potential? What, in other words, if we think about the Findable instead of the Found?

(to be continued elsewhere …)

Originally published as “Alienated 15: Finding Bern Porter.” Matrix 87 (fall 2010): 54-55.

[[1]]Schevill, James Erwin. Where to Go, What to Do, When You Are Bern Porter: A Personal Biography. Gardiner, Me.: Tilbury House, 1992. 5.[[1]]
[[2]]Ibid., 46.[[2]]
[[3]]Ibid., 59-61.[[3]]
[[4]]Ibid., 73.[[4]]
[[5]]Ibid., 6.[[5]]
[[6]]Ibid., 304.[[6]]
[[7]]Ibid., 246.[[7]]
[[8]]Ibid., 261.[[8]]
[[9]]Ibid., 271.[[9]]
[[10]]Ibid., 297.[[10]]
[[12]]Ibid., 296.[[12]]
[[13]]Ibid., 94-95.[[13]]
[[14]]Ibid., 302.[[14]]
[[15]]Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Eds. Fish, Stanley and Fredric Jameson. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. 19.[[15]]
[[16]]Ibid., 170-71.[[16]]
[[17]]Ibid., 171.[[17]]

Goodbye To All That: The Death of Bookstores

“Poetry laments the loss of physical space not only for book stores, but for actual physical space: it is not ready for virtual.”
— Sina Queyras

The last year of the first decade of the 21st century will be remembered as the year the bookstores died in Canada.

Today is December 29th, 2009. In Winnipeg, McNally Robinson Booksellers has just filed for bankruptcy protection, and is about to close its Polo Park location and its brand New Don Mills (Toronto) store. In August 2008, they closed their Calgary location. That leaves one location in Winnipeg and another in Saskatoon. If the bankruptcy protection application is approved, they’ll survive, along with a web store.

Eight days ago, the CBC reported that the Toronto Women’s Bookstore is also in jeopardy. Founded in 1973, the store does not have the money to pay its January bills, and is seeking help with fundraising to sustain it for the next year. Since 2004, women’s bookstores in Calgary, Saskatoon, Hamilton, London and Sudbury have all closed. According to the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, there are only 21 women’s bookstores left in the entire world.

These two events add insult to the injury of a very bad year for book retail. In Toronto in particular, 2009 was a bookstore bloodbath. Marc Glassman’s venerable Pages Books & Magazines closed its doors after 30 years. Atticus Books, a vast cave crammed full of used scholarly and art books, declined to renew its lease and went Internet-only. In February, David Mirvish Books went dark.

This is not to say that there are no independent booksellers left. In Toronto alone, there’s the Book City chain, This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (safely ensconced in its new Kensington Market digs), Type Books and Ben McNally Books for starters. But it’s worth noting that the cultural landscape of Canadian cities is changing for the worse.

The roots of this situation have to do with more than the rapid growth of digital media. The incursion of big-box book retail at the beginning of the decade, which was initially received as a boomtime blessing, had a lot to do with it. Small publishers experienced unprecedented sales as their books were used to fill the shelves of cavernous stores scattered across the Power Centres of the nation. After several years of people were so besotted with big-box bookstores that some were seriously arguing that they might soon replace the function of public libraries. Libraries, moreover, traditionally do not have a Starbucks in the building.

All of the sales that small publishers were making to the big-box chains quickly turned into an avalanche of returns. Profits from the initial sales, used to print larger runs for subsequent seasons of books, were clawed back by Chapters and Indigo as credit for returns — credit which they then used to finance new shipments of books for which the publishers could suddenly no longer afford to pay their printers. As long as the bookstores were in expansion mode, their investors were satisfied, but as soon as the stores actually had to make money, thpue whole system collapsed into a frantic shell game, complete with thinly disguised government bailouts for the publishers.

What happened next would have seemed surprising to someone who didn’t know that Chapters had lost complete control of their inventory system at least once and probably twice. At the behest of managers frantic to reduce store inventory levels, employees packed skids of books according to publisher alone and sent semitrailers full of them back to the distributors. The smaller but wilier Indigo reared up and swallowed a weakened Chapters like a python eats a pig.

Over the middle years of the decade, Indigo’s purchasing agents scaled back drastically on orders of small-press titles, concentrating instead on larger orders of books that they could sell like picture frames, scented candles and translucent plastic household widgets from Umbra. (Oprah’s Book Club and even Canada Reads have much to answer for in this respect: the homogenization of international reading tastes may result in the sales of larger quantities of books, but what makes a good bookstore is variety, not quantity.)

The result is a national chain with a near-monopoly on book sales where, despite the size of the actual retail space, the variety of actual books on sale is dismally limited, and not just in terms of small-press literary titles. Last month, I couldn’t find a single Raymond Chandler book in the Mystery section of a Kitchener IndigApters store. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we get the culture we deserve.

On the Internet, there are more independent writers than ever. There are places that digital writing can be had freely, both legally and illegally. But I find it depressing to note that the consolidation of books into the hands of one or two large gatekeepers has occurred in digital space even more rapidly than it occurred in physical space.

So the Internet is both poison and cure for this moment in the history of print culture. Not all independent booksellers will vanish, any more than all books will themselves totally sublimate into digital data. But public space will be different forever. Since I was a child, I have habitually learned the space of new cities by the locations of their bookstores. What I know about the culture of a place I have learned at least in part from what I found inside those stores. Those markers are fewer and farther between now, and we’ll be needing a new set of waypoints.

Originally published as “Alienated 15: Goodbye to All That,” Matrix, December 2009.

Feature image by Shira Golding.

Our Own Devices: Art Through Camera Screens

As the song says, I like New York in June. New York City in August, though, is hotter and stickier than an elephant’s ass. For this precise reason, a substantial bulk of the people who can be found in Manhattan during the late summer – tourists and locals alike — retreat to the vast air-conditioned interior spaces of the city: movie theatres, retail outlets and art galleries.

This year, I was one of those people. I spent a week drifting across the city from gallery to gallery, pausing only for brief hydration breaks and the occasional slice from Ray’s. Call it the Iron Man of 21st century flânerie. The relatively empty streets made it feel like a week of Sundays, or possibly a shot from the Will Smith version of I Am Legend during one of the scenes when the vampire cannibal people are all dormant (I’m beginning to think about that film as a documentary of sorts).

One of the insights I’ve had over the years, and this is hardly an original observation, is that one of the most interesting things to do while in New York is to watch the people themselves. While part of the masses stomping through the icy caverns of the MOMA in August, though, it was hardly optional, as there were invariably people between me and what I thought I was there to see – the art. Readjusting my perspective to focus on the people, though, got me thinking.

MOMA policy differs from that of many of the other New York art galleries in an important respect: it allows (or at least tolerates) photography of the vast majority of the gallery’s permanent collection. The only “No photography allowed” sign I saw on this trip was in front of the James Ensor show, which was not on permanent display. While most museums still try to instil an air of almost religious, respectfully silent contemplation into their visitors – an attitude that explicitly excludes the taking of pictures, via the use of low-light conditions and grumpy people in polyester blazers stationed throughout the space – something else was happening in the MOMA. Nearly everyone in the gallery was busily snapping pictures of the art with a bewildering array of consumer photographic technology.

Some people concentrated on photographing the art itself, while others had friends and lovers pose beside it (throwing gang signs optional). I saw more than one person crooking their neck awkwardly to hold their audio guide handset between their ear and shoulder while they simultaneously attempted to snap an image of the subject of the handset’s discourse.

Walter Benjamin observed in the third version of his famous essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Its technological Reproducibility” that while architecture and film are designed to be viewed simultaneously by large groups, painting isn’t. Up until the 18th century, the reception of painting took place largely in churches, monasteries and royal courts, where access to them was both graduated by space and mediated by class. Benjamin argues that modern attempts present paintings to the public have met with mixed success, because they are stripped of many of the earlier means of organizing and mediating the experience of viewing them. “[T]he same public which reacts progressively to a slapstick comedy, ” he writes, “inevitably displays a backward attitude toward Surrealism” {{1}}.

Does this still hold true in the context of the MOMA today? Benjamin was writing at a time when Surrealism and the other avant-gardes were attempting to produce a revolution in everyday life. Surrealist objects like Duchamp’s Readymades were an attempt to call the entire economy of precious works of art and art galleries into question. Today, these objects are ironically among the most venerated and valuable objects in museums and galleries worldwide. People flock to the MOMA to take pictures that duplicate the pictures of objects that they’ve already seen, whether on the Web, in coffee table art books, or on posters on a dorm room wall.

This need to experience a work of art as already mediated might well be the true face of Nicholas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, which argues that much contemporary art leans toward the participatory {{2}}: in order to experience a work of art today, perhaps we have to see it through our camera screens. Especially when it’s right in front of us.

In a passage that anticipates pretty much everything Marshall McLuhan would write some 40 years later, Benjamin covers this possibility as well: “The medium through which works of art continue to influence later ages is always different from the one in which they influence their own age.” For Benjamin, this later impact is constantly in flux, and fainter than it was initially. What interests me, though, is the notion that artists might only be able to produce the response that they desire from the public by when their work is approached “in an indirect manner” {{3}}. Simultaneously thinking about art as both an object in front of you and an image on the screen might be just such an indirect approach.

The point, as Slavoj Zizek argues in The Parallax View, is not to privilege one perspective over the other, breathlessly endorsing the digital or grumbling about how no one appreciates culture any more, but to think about the irreducible difference between the two {{4}}: we can’t have one without the other. The differences between a work of art hanging in a gallery and the print and digital images of it which are usually our first experience of it can be shocking – and instructive. When it’s on the wall in front of you, Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” is REALLY SMALL. Monet’s “Water Lilies,” on the other hand, are on canvases so overwhelmingly huge that sitting in front of them feels like entering a 19th century panorama, the precursor of a digital virtual world. In Mondrian’s most geometric paintings, you can still see traces of human effort in the brush strokes, and the thickness of the paint varies across the canvas. A digital image on a camera or cell phone is no less material, but its materiality is different: 2 megapixels or ten? Colour, black and white, or sepia? Consigned to live forever on a hard drive or immediately uploaded to a blog, Facebook, Flickr or Picasa where it will be seen, commented on and recirculated by hundreds, thousands, or millions?

So what happens when we try to think about these possibilities simultaneously? We end up reconsidering our whole idea about what constitutes an art “object” at all. In 2000, Marjorie Perloff coined the term”differential media” to describe Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget, which is not so much an object as it is a network. Fidget is, variously, a musical score, several professionally tailored paper suits, a web-based Java application, a pair of large visual poems on paper and a performance piece as well as a book; no one node in the network takes priority. What Perloff argues is that such works indicate that “knowledge is now available through different channels and by different means” {{5}}. Which was, perhaps, the point of the Surrealist Readymades all along.

Originally published as “Alienated 14: Our Own Devices,” in Matrix 84, fall 2009: 50-51.

Featured image by Stacy Lynn Baum.

[[3]]Benjamin, Walter. “The medium through which works of art continue to influence later ages.” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Volume 1, 1913-1926. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge/London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996. 235.[[3]]
[[4]]Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge/London, MIT Press, 2006. 19.[[4]]
[[5]]Originally published in the back of Goldsmith’s _Fidget_ (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000), this notion has been expanded into a longer essay, that appears in several places, including here: Perloff, Marjorie. “Screening the Page/ Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text.”[[5]]

Zero Punctuation: The Lester Bangs of Video Gaming

Way, way back in 2006, in the esteemed pages of Esquire magazine, Mr. Chuck Klosterman threw down the following journalistic gauntlet: “there is no Lester Bangs of video game writing.”

In a footnote to a later version of the same article, he fell all over himself qualifying that statement, noting that “Whenever someone wants to bemoan the state of pop criticism they immediately try to exhume Bangs’ mildly overrated corpse, and I dislike that tendency as much as everybody else”. Despite his annoying lack of the courage of his own convictions, though, Klosterman’s larger point remains salient.

We all know that video games have become a major arena of cultural production, significant enough that they’re pooching vast swaths of attention from the hoary old film and TV industries. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting either an aging academic vainly trying to keep in touch with what the kids are doing these days (present company included) or a blogger shilling for freebies from the industry who’s producing writing about video games. But: why hasn’t a gaming critic emerged who’s capable of becoming what Klosterman calls “the idiom’s definitive voice for the mainstream world”?

When I think of exemplary rock critics, in addition to Bangs and Klosterman himself, Greil Marcus, Hunter S. Thompson, Robert Christgau, Michael Bracewell, Martin Popoff and Chuck Eddy all come to mind. So: if we were to grind these scribes up in a blender and then use a cyclotron to extract the messy essence of rock journalist goodness to inject into a hitherto unfertilized video game critic embryo, what would that look like? Well, there’d be intelligence, insight, obsessiveness, and a remarkable facility with profanity.

Also? I suspect that the resulting person would be (or at least would appear to be, by virtue of their public persona) an asshole. I’m not sure why, exactly, but in an essay called “How to be a Rock Critic & Here’s How,” Bangs presents a convincing hypothesis:

Maybe most critics are pompous assholes, but rock critics are especially — because they’re working in virgin territory, where there’s absolutely no recognized, generally agreed on authority or standards. Nor should there be. Anything goes, so fake ’em out every chance you get. Rock ‘n’ roll’s basically just a bunch of garbage in the first place, it’s noise, it’s here today and gone tomorrow, so the only thing that can possibly trip you up is if you begin to reflect that if the music’s that trivial, can you imagine how trivial what you’re doing is?

Which actually is a good attitude to operate from, because it helps keep the pomposity factor in check. Half the rock critics in the country, no, 90% of the rock critics in the world have some grand theory they’re trying to lay on each other and everybody else, which they insist explains everything in musical history and ties up all the loose ends. Every last one of ’em has a different theory and every last one of the theories is total bullshit, but you might as well have one as part of your baggage if you’re going to pass.

In 2009, the Prophesied One finally appeared in the form of an Australian-dwelling British game designer and writer. His name, which is almost as unlikely as “Lester Bangs”, is Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, his bailiwick is an online video series called “Zero Punctuation,” and, yes, he’s kind of an asshole. In the best possible way.

Like most of us nerds, Croshaw was watching a lot of YouTube videos in 2006. It occurred to him that it might be interesting to make a video using only still pictograms accompanied by a voiceover. In July 2007, Croshaw uploaded his first two videos to YouTube, one reviewing The Darkness demo for PlayStation 3, the other, Fable: the Lost Chapters for PC/XBox. Video game site The Escapist quickly offered Croshaw an online home, and Croshaw returned the favour by quadrupling the traffic to the site.

Croshaw claims that the breathless, acerbic speedfreak delivery which gives “Zero Punctuation” its name (and, to my mind, hearkens back to Lester Bangs’ all-exclamation tour-de-force essay “Sham 69 is Innocent!”) was an accident. Like Christian Bök (another virtuoso of verbal velocity) always says, the best performers make their liabilities into their assets. Croshaw has done just that, shaping a lumpy grab bag of eccentricities into a personal aesthetic that is, as Bangs might say, pure punk.

Machine-gun delivery aside, Croshaw’s prose is funny and trenchant, enough so that a small army of devotees has been diligently transcribing the “Zero Punctuation” monologues onto a wiki, line by line. The review of Valve’s instant classic cooperative shooter Left 4 Dead, for example, begins “It’s my observation that zombies are second only to ninjas, pirates and monkeys in the list of things nerds like and need to shut the fuck up about.” ‘Nuff said.

The illustration style of “Zero Punctuation” (basically a series of stills) also transforms what might be a liability in lesser hands into an asset. First, the relatively static quality of the images creates the illusion that the monologue is faster than it actually is. Second, as animating the monologues is incredibly time-intensive, using a series of stills is likely part of what makes it possible to produce each new episode in a timely fashion. Third, as Scott McCloud has argued convincingly, verisimilitude in cartooning is fine, but it isn’t always either necessary or desirable. What matters is the creation of a tiny, consistent world with its own logic … a logic that is capable of both parodying real events and creating compelling narratives of its own. I’ll take Rocky and Bullwinkle over highly rendered anime jailbait any day of the week.

Croshaw’s reviews also regularly and reliably perform the two actions that Klosterman finds lacking in most video game reviews. “Zero Punctuation” not only explains what playing a given game feels like; it also provides some context about what a given game means in a context that’s larger than the workings of the game itself. The following comes from the “Zero Punctuation” review of Double Fine’s Psychonauts, a game much beloved by critics but not particularly coveted by actual consumers:

Psychonauts seems like a rather polarizing game in that some people seem to think it’s the kind of thing Jesus would make if he was alive and wasn’t a pussy and some other people feel it’s a chunky vomit milkshake severely overhyped by the people in party A. Which group you’ll fall into depends on whether you’re the kind of misty-eyed games-are-art hippie who can allow things like excellent storytelling and charming artistic direction (excusing a few gameplay issues) or if you’re the kind of twitching Ritalin-popping XBox owner who falls into a narcoleptic coma when they go without killing something for forty-five seconds.

The larger point here is that it’s not just video games that have room to grow beyond their current promising but underachieving stage. Game criticism too can aspire to be something other than a peer-reviewed essay or glorified advertising copy. As Klosterman concludes, “If nobody ever thinks about these games in a manner that’s human and metaphorical and contextual, they’ll all become strictly commodities, and then they’ll all become boring. They’ll only be games.”

The reason that we need to think about this issue is that, as with rock music beforehand, no one who ever began playing video games has ever really stopped. As the demographic for video games continues to broaden, we’ll need as many ways to think and write about them as possible. If we straight white guys weren’t so good at being pompous assholes, it’d all happen a lot faster.

Originally published as “Alienated 13: Zero Punctuation,” in Matrix, spring 2009.

Status Update: “Literature for the Focus-Challenged”

Brian J. Davis wrote a great piece on status update in the Globe Books section online:

Status update: ‘Emily Brontë and her Playstation are overly friendly these days’

Facebook’s status update bar may be its most popular, enduring and influential feature (given the rise of Twitter’s real time fixes for the focus-challenged). For writers Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy, status updates are also poetry. Or, rather, it becomes poetry after the RRS feeds of thousands of Facebook users have been harvested, shorn of the user names and attached to the names of dead poets or writers.

Wershler and Kennedy’s site performs that task with each visit, thereby creating an alternate universe where the famous and the obscure are alive, well and reveling in the banal. Thus, Samuel Johnson’s “socks keep falling down. Day after day, sock after sock. WHY?!?!” and “Ted Hughes is not a number! I am a free man!” Should you become fascinated by the fact that Kingsley Amis is “watching Serenity for the second time,” each dead writer’s name has its own RSS feed.

Some of you may note that Wershler and Kennedy are the same digital hooligans behind the poetry-generating website and book Apostrophe. does the idea of generated poetry one better by working on several levels simultaneously. First, and most important, it’s flat out funny and endlessly readable. Yet dig deeper and Wershler and Kennedy’s cheeky appropriation of Facebook’s purposefully “neutral” look also reminds us that Facebook is wholesale appropriating your information for all manner of data-harvesting, 140 characters at a time. By attaching the name of a writer to effectively anonymous lines, lessens the bite of social networking economics.

If I can paraphrase an old radical slogan, “Users! One more step to be creators.”

Reposted with permission of Brian J. Davis. Featured image by ~!.

Jonathan Coulton: Blinded with Aperture Science

Marshall McLuhan was fond of observing that the content of a new medium is always an older medium. He would likely have taken a certain amount of satisfaction out of the notion that the job of popular music in 2008 is largely to serve as the content for cell phones and video game consoles. Legal downloads of digital songs from the iTunes Store alone outsell most traditional record stores. Downloads of ring tones for cellular phones regularly outsell the singles on which they’re based.

Yesterday’s major musical dinosaurs (we’re talking about you, Axl) pin their comeback hopes on the exclusive launch of new singles in video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. How will the hordes of bespectacled, androgynous Jesus-looking indie rock boys staring back at us from their MySpace pages cope in such a harsh, unforgiving market-driven digital realm? In the words of Jonathan Coulton, you just keep on trying till you run out of cake.

Last year, Coulton wrote “Still Alive,” sometimes called “The Portal Song,” the near-perfect end credit theme for Valve Corporation’s near-perfect video game Portal. The lyrics are only a fraction of the story, but here they are, as they appear in Portal‘s old-school ASCII credits:

This was a triumph.
I’m making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS.
It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.
Aperture Science
We do what we must
because we can.
For the good of all of us.
Except the ones who are dead.
But there’s no sense crying over every mistake.
You just keep on trying till you run out of cake.
And the Science gets done.
And you make a neat gun.
For the people who are still alive.
I’m not even angry.
I’m being so sincere right now.
Even though you broke my heart.
And killed me.
And tore me to pieces.
And threw every piece into a fire.
As they burned it hurt because I was so happy for you!
Now these points of data make a beautiful line.
And we’re out of beta.
We’re releasing on time.
So I’m GLaD. I got burned.
Think of all the things we learned
for the people who are still alive.
Go ahead and leave me.
I think I prefer to stay inside.
Maybe you’ll find someone else to help you.
Maybe Black Mesa
Anyway, this cake is great.
It’s so delicious and moist.
Look at me still talking
when there’s Science to do.
When I look out there, it makes me GLaD I’m not you.
I’ve experiments to run.
There is research to be done.
On the people who are still alive.
And believe me I am still alive.
I’m doing Science and I’m still alive.
I feel FANTASTIC and I’m still alive.
While you’re dying I’ll be still alive.
And when you’re dead I will be still alive.

For those who somehow missed the chance to experience Portal, despite its availability for PC, PS3 and XBox 360, this is how it works: you play a cyborg test subject attempting to navigate, and eventually escape from, a series of fiendish puzzle rooms housed in an abandoned scientific complex controlled by (what else?) an insane computer. Your only tool is the Portal Gun, a device which temporarily connects two surfaces via an extra-dimensional tunnel, allowing you to access locations in the complex that would otherwise be inaccessible. Throughout the game, the computer coaxes you onward with the promise of a party at the end of the tests, complete with moist, delicious cake. About the time that you discover the phrase “The cake is a lie” scrawled in blood in one of the darker corners of the complex, you begin to have some serious misgivings about your situation.[/box]

Portal is a sophisticated implementation of gameplay ideas that first appeared in a 2005 video game by Nuclear Monkey Software called Narbacular Drop. Created by students from the DigiPen Institute of Technology, it featured as its central character a princess without any knees who therefore couldn’t jump (I’m not making this up) and thus had to escape her imprisonment in a dungeon by dropping through a series of magical portals. As in Portal itself, gameplay in Narbacular Drop often requires the player to carry a crate along with them through the dungeon. Released as a free download, Narbacular Drop won a slew of industry awards and still has a loyal audience who develop and post custom maps for it. Significantly (if only for the purposes of ending this digression into the ubergeeky subfield of video game history), the success of Narbacular Drop also resulted in its entire development team being hired by Valve.

A former barista and software programmer, Coulton’s music has always skewed significantly toward nerd topics, as song titles like “The Mandelbrot Set,” “Todd the T1000” and “Flickr” make abundantly clear. At one point, Popular Science magazine even made him their Contributing Troubadour. In 2006, Coulton was tapped to write the Portal theme after playing a show in Seattle that had Kim Swift (one of the members of the original Narbacular Drop team) and several other Valve developers in the audience. After sitting down with Erik Wolpaw, who wrote Portal (as well as dialogue for Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and the amazing Psychonauts), Coulton came up with results so impressive that Wolpaw subsequently told a reporter from MTV’s Multiplayer blog that “We had a choice between [Coulton] and Ben Folds and we feel we made the right choice.” A bold assessment, considering Ben Folds made an album with Captain James T. Fucking Kirk himself.

Even separate from he remarkable circumstances of its production and circulation, though, “Still Alive” is a pretty solid pop song. Written from the perspective of the insane computer, then sung by Ellen McLean, the voice actor who plays the character in the game, Still Alive” is pushed into the Uncanny Valley (the nebulous interzone between people pretending to be machines and machines pretending to be people) by just the faintest hint of computer processing. The final version has a foreboding quality similar to the Cardigans’ cover version of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.” If I had to really pin it down, I’d say it’s a lot like listening to a battery-powered Cabbage Patch Doll singing a little nursery rhyme about how it’s going to kick the shit out of you.

Since its release, “Still Alive” has become the most famous piece of music to emerge from the world of gaming since the Super Mario Bros. theme. As of this writing, the version of the Portal end credit sequence on YouTube has had 2,065,375 viewings. The acoustic version of the song, performed by Coulton himself, boasts over half a million views. YouTube also hosts a slew of cover versions of “Still Alive,” including one sung in Japanese, one played on classical piano, one played on an 8080 computer, and another in Mario Paint Composer, which has received almost as many viewings as Coulton’s own version (remember what I said earlier about ringtones?).

Like any proper postmodern cultural narrative, this one inevitably ends up consuming its own entrails. On April 1, 2008, Harmonix, MTV Games and Valve released “Still Alive” as a free download for Rock Band. If you spend a little time browsing through the YouTube video covers of the song, you’ll eventually find footage of Coulton and his touring band doing “Still Alive” on their XBox as an encore. The bar separating guitar heroes from Guitar Heroes just got a little bit lower. I wonder if Axl will make it over the top?

external links

Portal homepage

Jonathan Coulton homepage

Portal credits with “Still Alive” on YouTube

Originally published as “Alienated 11: Blinded with Aperture Science” in Matrix 81 (fall 2008): 46-47.