The Ethically Incomplete Intellectual

In between all of the baby-feeding and the moving and the new-job-starting, I made a little art. “The Ethically Incomplete Intellectual” is a broadside that was commissioned by the 2010 Scream Literary Festival (for their “Agents Provocateurs” theme) and designed by Andrew Faulkner and Leigh Nash of The Emergency Response Unit. The image is from a collaboration between RM Vaughan and Jared Mitchell. The text is the weaponized version of a paper that I wrote on the subject of that collaboration … a paper which will shortly be in print in Open Letter.

UPDATE: Print copies of this broadside are once again available from TERU’s Etsy Shop, but they won’t last forever. Which is sort of the point of making literary ephemera, anyway. I’ve attached a PDF of the highest quality version in my possession to this post (link below), which will look good on your screen, but doesn’t hold a candle to the genuine item.

The Ethically Incomplete Broadside

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]]

theanyspacewhatever: Field Notes

On the way to theanyspacewhatever, the Guggenheim Relational Aesthetics show, I meet mariachis on the subway between 77th and 86th.

Maurizio Cattelan’s “Daddy Daddy” — drowned yet floating (because wooden? Then how’d he drown?) Pinocchio — makes it all worthwhile immediately. Father of 4-year-old girl turns it into an object lesson about the importance of lifejackets.

The Guggenheim is a lot of things, but it is pretty clearly not anyspacewhatever. Whatever.

Rirkrit Tiravanjia, “Chew the Fat.” Sitting here watching TV on the museum’s temporarily carpeted floor, watching TV. My shoes are around the corner, under a bench. Would be even better if they weren’t there when I went back for them.

Shoes are still there. Oh well.

Giant press-on text on every surface and hanging signs mostly banal. Should have hired a poet.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, “Promenade.” Sound environment. Only part of the gallery where people walk slowly. Sound is of a downpour in a forest somewhere. It’s pretty, but the best part is the people wearing audioguides are completely oblivious to it.

Jorge Pardo, “Sculpture Ink.” Cardboard dividers with holes jigsawed out, amphibian-shaped lights. The works of a giant mechanical wristwatch. Slows down the passage. Of time.

Douglas Gordon and Rirkrit Tiravanjia, “Bar.” Barista with 3 espresso machines pulling coffees for people sitting on beanbag chairs, watching movies previously banned in the US. Audience mesmerised by Tod Browning’s Freaks. Gabba Gabba Hey.

Carsten Holler’s “Revolving Hotel Room” looks like Christian should be living in it. Gentle sway of clotheshangers the only visible indication of its slow rotations.

Angela Bulloch, “pixel boxes” and “Night Sky.” Kids, yelling, love the boxes: “That’s so cool. We’re in outer space.”

The guards, who are utterly oblivious of people, me included, talking on cell phones and snapping photos throughout the gallery, point out this sign to me right when I try to take a picture of the hygrometer at the end of the ramp. I always liked the hygrometers best.

(Flickr set here.)

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]]

War Rugs from Afghanistan

Last Sunday, following up on a tip from Ed Pien, Kenny Goldsmith and I stopped by The Textile Museum of Canada to see Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan. Both The Toronto Star and Now listed it as one of the best gallery shows of 2008, and it did not disappoint: curator Max Allen has assembled 118 rugs from the period of the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan (1979) up to the present.

Viewing these rugs is a deeply defamiliarizing experience: woven in with traditional geometric patterns and imagery are helicopters, AK-47s, jets and fighter planes, land mines, grenades, personnel carriers, computer monitors, skyscrapers and other signs of Soviet and western culture’s violent incursions into Afghanistan. The weapons are usually rendered accurately enough that it’s possible to identify their specific models; the curator’s comments indicate that there are no fictional weapons in any of these rugs … as though that would be necessary. Having grown up in a culture where I’ve seen more video games than Afghan rugs, to my anachronistic imagination, these blocky images often look like artifacts from the 8-bit video games of my childhood.

I’ve posted a Flickr set of images of these rugs, but they were taken under low lighting conditions with an iPhone camera, so I lost about half of the shots I took. The show is only up until January 27, so if you’re in Toronto, see it while you can.

Found Poetry from Ubuweb

On January 9, 2009, Mercer Union launched “Street Poets & Visionaries: Selections from the UbuWeb Collection” to a packed house. The text that I wrote for the catalogue of this collection of found poetry follows, as does a link to a Flickr set of images of the event.

The quality of mind in the radio telescope is its will to select.
— Christopher Dewdney, “Parasite Maintenance” {{1}}

What are the outer limits of appropriation?

Digital culture is obsessed with this question, from both an aesthetic and a legal perspective. On the one hand is an entire century of artistic practices that gleefully encourage the copying and recirculation of cultural materials, from Delta blues and Dada to Flarf and mashups. On the other hand is an increasingly restrictive legal climate, which, as Siva Vaidhyanathan has argued at length, is entirely incapable of dealing effectively with “emerging communication technologies, techniques and aesthetics” {{2}}.

One response to this deadlock between the aesthetics of appropriation in a digital milieu and the legal forces that would constrain them is an increase in bandwidth. In his ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound claims that “artists are the antennae of the race” {{3}}, but in a digital milieu, a set of rabbit ears will no longer suffice. For Christopher Dewdney, contemporary artistic sensibility is analogous to the functioning of a satellite dish. From such a perspective, artists are devices for the accumulation and concentration of data, cool and dispassionate. The quality of the objects and texts that they produce depends on “the will to select.” Thus, the individual’s ability to sort and process the ambient signals that constantly bombard all of us is what constitutes contemporary criteria for a successful artistic career.

As Craig Dworkin has noted elsewhere, self-declared “Word Processor” Kenneth Goldsmith‘s personal oeuvre falls squarely into this tradition of technologized, high-volume appropriation {{4}}. This is especially true of recent works such as Day and the American trilogy (The Weather, Traffic and Sports), all of which duplicate huge swaths of copyrighted texts and performances with studied Warholian indifference. In this context, even Goldsmith’s curatorial work on the decade-old UbuWeb, the world’s largest digital archive of avant-garde sound recordings, concrete poetry, video, outsider art and related critical materials, is arguably part of the practice of appropriation art — perhaps even Goldsmith’s greatest work.

Goldsmith normally proceeds by identifying a neglected (because mundane, or, in Goldsmith’s terms, “boring”) site of cultural discourse, such as an average edition of The New York Times (Day), or an entire weekend’s worth of radio traffic reports (Traffic). He then transcribes that discourse meticulously, reconfigures the resulting digital manuscript as a book, and attaches his name to it. Though such projects have been common in the art world since the heyday of Conceptualism, they are relatively new in the world of poetry. By porting an established practice for aesthetic production from one field of cultural endeavour (gallery art) to another (poetry), Goldsmith has simultaneously constructed himself a career and staged an intervention which has changed the stakes of contemporary writing.

And yet. The texts and objects in “Street Poets & Visionaries: Selections from the UbuWeb Collection” occupy a privileged position, one that at first glance seems utterly counterintuitive in the context of the rest of Goldsmith’s oeuvre. The digitized versions of this material used to appear on UbuWeb under the heading “Found + Insane”; Goldsmith’s text on the website notes that “we’ve redesigned and renamed it Outsiders, reflecting broader cultural trends toward the legitimization of Outsider work,” reflecting a remarkable degree of cultural sensitivity from someone whose public persona is often gleefully abrasive and provocative {{5}}. Moreover, when exhibiting this work, Goldsmith never directly attaches his name to it, preferring the relative anonymity of “UbuWeb” and the curatorial first-person plural.

The greatest difference between these materials and all of Goldsmith’s recent work is that he circulates them without “denuding” them — this is Goldsmith’s term for the process of stripping away “the normative external signifiers that tend to give as much meaning to an artwork as the contents of the artwork
itself,” such as font size, lineation, accompanying illustrations, and so on {{6}}. In gallery shows such as this one, the original objects themselves are displayed, even though for Goldsmith, the normal practice would be to discard originals after digitization like so many empt}}y husks.

Part of the value of these objects is their stubborn materiality. Yes, the content itself is important, and Goldsmith sometimes performs these works as part of his own undifferentiated output, but there is also something here that resolutely resists digitization: the crackle of ancient Letraset, photocopier noise, fragments of yellowing Scotch tape, the trace of a hand wielding a Sharpie. These works, I would argue, are the secret truth of Kenneth Goldsmith’s practice: something small and sacred that makes his great, sprawling, transformative profanities possible.

[[1]] Dewdney, Christopher. “Parasite Maintenance.” Alter Sublime. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1980. 73-92.[[1]]

[[2]] Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity. New York: New York University Press, 2001. 133.[[2]]

[[3]] Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1960. 73.[[3]]

[[4]] Dworkin, Craig. “The Imaginary Solution.” Contemporary Literature XLVIII.1: 29-60. 34.[[4]]

[[5]]Goldsmith, Kenneth. “Outsiders.” Accessed 9 December 2008.[[5]]

[[6]]Goldsmith, Kenneth. “The Bride Stripped Bare: Nude Media and The Dematerialization of Tony Curtis.” Accessed 9 December 2008. 4.[[6]]

Street Poets & Visionaries launch photoset

Dokaka: Air Guitar Jordan

You’ve all done it, so stop pretending.

Your favourite metal tune starts playing. You make a rock-face. You bend your knees, crook your elbows, tighten the fingers of either hand into a claw-like rictus and start flailing away at the invisible strings of your favourite make of imaginary axe.

If you’re particularly ardent about it, you may even do that rapidfire bobblehead neck-snap thing that, to be perfectly honest, makes you look like the Chicken Lady regardless of whether you’re imitating a traditional longhaired Pantene-Pro-using metal guitarist or one of the 90s-flavoured baldhead-plus-neck-tattoo-and-excessively-pointy-bearded ones. And then, inevitably, from somewhere deep in your throat, the horrible noises begin to emerge: “BWAOOOOOOOM … widdlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddla.”

Take note, hipsters: at such a moment, all irony collapses into the thing itself. Whether you really meant it or not, the cold hard truth is that you still did it and will, in all likelihood, do it again, given the opportunity. I used to work in a record store. I’ve seen you. You probably even came up to me at some point and said, “Dude, I totally don’t know the name of the song, but it kind of goes like this: “BWAOOOOOOOM … widdlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddla. Can you help me?”

As a matter of fact, yes. Yes, I can help you. Read carefully, for this is the most helpful thing you will learn all day: Dokaka is the Michael Jordan of air guitar, a veritable god, soaring above your puny bobbling head like a great metal condor.

Dokaka became great because of the lameness of others. Others like you. Once, Dokaka had a band. His band members were lame. As each lame band member dropped out of rehearsal in turn, Dokaka began to use his voice to replace the sound of their instruments. Soon, there was only Dokaka. Dokaka, and his greatness.

Using your voice to imitate the sound of a machine is as old as the twentieth century. Even during the heights of the modernist avant-garde, the sound poetry of the Italian Futurists failed to impress Ezra Pound (and, as a fellow Fascist aesthete, he was inclined to be sympathetic). In an essay on the work of his friend George Antheil, Pound ranted as follows:

I am perfectly aware that you can imitate the sound of machinery verbally, you can make new words, you can write ‘pan-pam vlum vlum vlan-ban etc., […] but these are insufficient equipment for the complete man of letters, or even for national minstrelsy. The mechanical man of futurist fiction is false pastoral, he can no more fulfill literature than could the bucolic man.

For Pound, music is nevertheless “the art most fit to express the fine quality of machines,” and “there would be something weak about art if it couldn’t deal with this new content.” Pound was dead wrong about many things, which is why his scrawny, anti-semitic ass eventually was tossed into a tiger cage (sans tigers) in Pisa. But Pound had this much right: the trick would be to complement the human with the mechanical without “humanising” the mechanical by translating it back into words. In the entire history of twentieth-century sound poetry, this happened all too rarely. And, when it did happen, it almost never (maybe ever) rocked like a motherfucker.

Dokaka succeeds where entire generations of barking hippies have failed because he instrumentalizes his voice and structures the results with the aid of the very technology he emulates. Dokaka lays down his vocal analogs for each “instrument” track by track, then layers them together. The result is an amalgam of poetic metal righteousness: human becoming machine, machine becoming human. If the Four Horsemen (the mightiest of twentieth-century sound poetry ensembles) and the Four Horsemen (the ultimately doomed biker-rock supergroup produced by Rick Rubin) banded together to record Metallica’s “Four Horsemen,” it might sound like Dokaka.

Might. Because Dokaka is producing vocal analogues for sounds that, strictly speaking, did not even exist until the late 1980s. Listen to the cover of Slayer’s “Angel of Death” on his website – perhaps Dokaka’s finest moment to date, work on Björk’s Medulla included. Slayer is, by almost all accounts that matter, the heaviest heavy thing ever. When Dokaka does that screaming glissando just before the “vocals” would normally start, if everything he doesn’t wasn’t all vocals anyway, that is the first time a human has ever made that noise.

… outside of the voices of those of you that used to come up to me in the record store and begin “Dude, I totally don’t know the name of the song, but it kind of goes like this,” that is. And, compared to Dokaka, you suck. Which makes Dokaka, by extension, the heaviest sound poet/air guitarist/slightly drunken otaku guy ever (that he may be the only sound poet/air guitarist/slightly drunken otaku guy in history is irrelevant to the crushing power of the logic of this argument).

So then: your path is clear. Study Dokaka. Learn from him. Emulate his moves. His kung-fu style is strong. And, slowly, because of your efforts to improve your own sorry-ass technique, the world will become slightly less lame.

Originally published as “Alienated 8: Dokaka – Air Guitar Jordan.” Matrix 78 (fall 2007): 46-47.

You Whores: Bill Drummond Knows Your Price

We all have our price. What’s yours?

Bill Drummond knows. And he ought to: on August 23, 1994, he burned a million pounds of the hard-earned money that you paid for the albums he produced as one half of the KLF, aka The Jamms, aka The Timelords, aka The Justified Ancients of Muu Muu. It took about an hour, and, by all accounts (okay, only one: that of journalist Jim Reid, the sole witness), it was kind of boring.

Gimpo, a frequent collaborator of the KLF, filmed the entire incident. Only one print of the film exists, and, from time to time, Gimpo will screen it in a gallery somewhere. After the first showing of the film, Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, the other Justified Ancient, asked the audience the following question: “Is It Rock ‘n’ Roll?”

Consensus was that it was not rock and roll.

One of Drummond’s more recent projects, You Whores, is more amusing and less expensive. Launched in 2004, You Whores is Craigslist with a brain, or the infamous eBay auction “I Will Kick Your Ass” with less malice and more density.

You Whores is an exercise in style. It strips the classified advertisement down to its very core, flensing away utility until all that’s left are the obscure objects of desire:

Ill of the Dead
For just £25 per week, I will speak ill of the dead. Let me know which dead person you want badmouthed, and I’ll invent some scurrilous yet believable stories about their sexual deviancy/wife-beating prowess/shoplifting exploits/secret serial-killing sprees (delete as applicable), and relate said stories to at least five people per week until your money runs out. A special cut-price offer is available on Richard Madeley, even though he’s not dead yet. Apply for details.
United Kingdom – 23/08/04


be polite
I will, for no funds, hold open the door for you after I have passed thru it, I will dispose of my litter sensibly and not spit or piss in the street, I will smile nicely at you, I will however, call you a cunt if I think you deserve it.

tim the polite of peckham
United Kingdom – 14/07/04


Imagine if there was a chick out there who lusted after *YOU* every single time she masturbated
Now, here’s your chance.

For a price, I will think of you and only you every time I commit acts of self-love during a time period.

I will picture you in my mind, and pretend that all pleasurable touches come from your hands. I will pretend the rubber manhood thrusting in and out of me belongs to you. I will breathe your name heavily. I will lust after you. I will dream of you. I will long for you. And I will always fully believe that you have a huge cock.

Every orgasm will be with the thought of you in my mind. I will scream your name as I come repeatedly.

Prices in US Funds:
$10 a day
$45 a week
$300 a month

During each time period, I vow to commit acts of self-love to orgasm, at the very least, once per day, no matter what.

For $5 extra per day, per request, I will cater my self-love to your whims. Bondage? Sure. I’ll tie myself up tightly and enjoy it. Anal penetration? Sure, I’ll give that a go. Whatever your fetish, I’ll do my best to do whatever you want me to do, and I will love it.**

For $400 extra, the next time I actually get laid, I will scream your name at the height of passion. I will pretend it is you, and I will think of you the entire time.***

Pictures and self descriptions are optional, but will greatly assist in the full capture of my lust for you.

** I reserve the right to know my limits. Prices may rise depending on how far past my comfort level your requests go.

*** Price rises to $750 if I am serious about the guy I will be screaming your name to, unless you happen to share the same name.

Canada – 20/06/04


Say Nice Things About You At Your Funeral
Worried that the day to mark your passing is going to be an Eleanor Rigby type affair?

Fear not, for 20% of your estate (or £1000, whichever the greater) plus travel and overnight accomodation expenses, I will pretend to have known you, deliver a stirring eulogy, and then get drunk at your wake.

Applicants must supply either an annually updated biography (1 page max) or a link to their blog.

Dave Read
United Kingdom – 19/06/04

… and so on.

The general process behind You Whores is not particularly new. Doulas Huebler’s 1973 conceptual art project Secrets is a direct ancestor. Huebler asked gallery attendees to write a secret anonymously on a slip of paper and to drop it into a collection box, then documented the results in book form. Secrets shares the same unhinged declarative mode ab> better or worse than You Whores, just more poignant in places:

I loathe my husband.

I’m scared of men

I’m happy to be leaving my job of 33 years

I fucked my dead mother on a table in Siberia.

I’m pregnant and I don’t know what to do with the baby

I think I am obsessed by sex

No one knows but I am one of the 40 virtuous people for whom God does not destroy the world.

A girl friend of mine has a case of the clap but I haven’t told her.

I’ve always wanted to be somebody

I am a failure

It’s possible to argue that with You Whores, the use of the Web as a combined collection and publication device makes all the world into an art gallery, but that would be missing the point: a few lines of code obviates the need for either the presence of the gallery system or of a self-identified artist. Not that You Whores renders the world of galleries and blue-chip artists obsolete; big art is a closed, self-sustaining system that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the whimsies of a former music producer and a handful of antisocial but clever adolescents. Nor does You Whores quite finish the project of democratizing art that conceptualism promised but never delivered. The Web doesn’t turn everyone into an artist; it turns everyone into a nerd.

In the end, it’s a lot like taking a million pounds to the Isle of Jura in the middle of the night and setting fire to them fifty quid at a time: briefly entertaining, but not rock and roll.

Originally published as “Alienated 2: You Whores.” Matrix 72 (fall 2005): 8-9