Thursday, April 06, 2006

Images and Language in the Music of Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono’s music has been called “dangerous” by David Bowie, for it possesses an ability to “get one thinking and make one form an opinion.” To “get one thinking” in this instance is to call for something subversive; it activates us to move radically into the recesses of consciousness and search for the mainspring of revolution. But this sort of revolution need not be political, nor need it be restricted purely to altering and re-evaluating existing social institutions with the intent on reshaping our world, so to speak. This variety of positions remains the rhetoric of 20th century radicalism. Ono’s music moves beyond an attempt to corroborate these modes of rhetoric and, instead, encourages a confrontation between listener and recording; how the listener responds to the artist’s work (while the mind has not been closed away from a multiplicity of new vantage points) becomes important when approaching her music.

Contemporary American culture has sought to eradicate this approach to the arts entirely, whether through advocating the irresponsibility of hermeneutic attitudes or as the result of living in a society so enamored by images that not only have other human sensory responses become desensitized but, also, that our image-suffocated universe has encouraged a particular way of thinking. Ono’s work in music suggests that we challenge these ways of thinking, which have become so fixed onto our response systems, and find a replacement suitable enough to help stimulate a more holistic approach. The 1980 song, “Walking On Thin Ice” remains one of Ono’s most accessible pieces of music, although particular listeners generally moot this in their response to the singer’s unique vocal range, choosing instead to identify high-pitched vocal blares as validation to the inapproachability of her music.

Robert Moog’s synthesizer enabled similar sounds to be recorded, altered and amplified, with many artists such as Wendy Carlos utilizing this new technology in generating and manipulating electronic instrumentation not previously exposed on such a mass scale. Ono’s vocals provide something pervasive in that they may very well be listened to as an extension of what Moog provided with his synthesizer - only, in this instance, the sound is organic rather than electronic; “Her style of signing requires a technique, like anything else,” Eric Clapton said when speaking of Ono’s music, “If you try it, after ten minutes your voice will break. She is doing something unique – it has never been done before.” What a song such as “Walking On Thin Ice” provides the listener, then, is a combination of the synthetic with the real, while the latter is often turned away by casual listeners for it’s rather daring eschewing of what is considered a more safe means of making music. I have often found myself attempting to displace Ono’s frequent shrieks into something artificial and, as such, morphing her vocal fluctuations to those of synthetic instruments; as such, her music becomes more comfortable, existing now as something to be approached effortlessly, as it is generally easier to acknowledge the wails of artificial instrumentation in our everyday exposure to music than it is the wails of the human voice. (“It’s just fake. It isn’t real.”)

The brunt of criticism that has been directed towards Ono’s music over the last thirty-five years has been the often negligent accusation that she provides nothing with any substantial value worth listening to; to expose ourselves to female voice fluctuation at a level so highly elevated becomes catastrophic to our ears and unworthy of a closer listen. As such, the listener does not seek to possess the capability of revolting against any preconceived ideas concerning what singing must sounds like as opposed to what it may sound like. Ono’s voice does not present tranquility and it should be noted that this is not her objective; as an artist strongly centralized towards the peace movement, she sings of chance, objectification, vulnerability, and belittlement. “Walking On Thin Ice,” with Ono’s dynamic screeches, establishes a pattern wherein repetition serves the structure and engenders the force of her music. Redundancy, particularly in a culture asphyxiated by the immediacy of images, erects our world, as it forms the dynamic arc of our existence (most specifically seen with a diphtheria of media) and establishes a criteria – a set of guidelines – which stipulates how we are to respond to given information or material. We live by command, as Ono’s vocals tell us with strenuous anxiety, and our facilities capable of allowing ourselves to decide on what have been fostered into deciding on how. Is there a free-willist tendency in her music? As the lyrics to “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In the Snow)” illustrate:

Snow -

Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, Don't worry.

Don't worry.
Don't worry, Don't, don't, don't, don't, don't, don't, don't, Don't, don't, don't, don't, don't, don't, don't, kyoko.

Don't worry. Don't.
Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, Don't worry.

Kyoko, don't worry.
Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, don't worry, Don't worry.

Through this repetition, voice crying out in arduous wails, Ono’s music reminds us that art is not comfortable but, most importantly, that art is not comfortable because there is nothing comfortable for it to respond to. Hers is a response that is primitive and corporeal rather than spiritually transcendent or reactionary and invests great relevance into our contemporary world; choked of images, responding with austere mechanization and placated by the willy-nilly commands of “not worrying,” we deny regression and feign the presence of progress towards a new dawn of advancement and sophistication. With this, the modern world does not recognize it’s own implications and merely purports the malaise of individuals forced into loneliness by the commands of a culture dependant upon images. Ono’s work alone is not readily accessible because it exists in a world that has been, through these commands, made accessible for us, however desensitized we may have become in the process.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Theatricality and Performance in the Wedding

The wedding, in the American conception of it, maintains a form of theatricality that is not entirely disengaged from the classification of live performance. Upon attending the first wedding service I had been of age enough to describe from memory, such an idea was not something tangible; the wedding as a form of commencement, as something spiritual, transcending the boundaries of performance-ritual, had become the predominant way from which I learned to envision the service. Since this time, however, the wedding no longer ascribes to something theatrical only once when salvaged from the depths of esoteric scrutiny. Rather, it exists as an instance, however impermanent in nature, resistant to becoming obsolete (and this is most specifically demonstrated by the use of such contemporary practices as congratulatory remarks made by guests for reception video tapes, the taking of photographs, and the saving of wedding dresses). To attend a wedding is to be rendered vital for the mental and material longevity of the occasion and, as I discovered, become not a member of the “cast” but forced into spectatorship; as a mere member of the audience, we observe this live performance with Brechtian detachment whilst our only interactions are ritualistic and supportive to the intentions of the key players (husband and wife).

Four years ago, when I was invited to attend such a wedding, the integration of visual media into a ceremony associated popularly with spiritual and pious values intrigued me; to record and capture by means of the photograph or tape recorded image is unique to our conception of the wedding. To speak words into the videographer’s camera (“The best of luck to you both,” “May this be the beginning of many wonderful years of happiness and learning,” and so on) and to pose for the photographer’s lens removes the concept of marriage from the realm of interpersonal bond and forces it into live spectacle. As such, I approached having to offer remarks of congratulation to the couple with great hesitation, for the gaze of the video camera did not place my body and comments onto a stage of any sort but, rather, forced me to recognize my participation in the wedding as mere spectator, called upon to support the performers when need be for sake of immediate renewal and gratification in the future (whether this be through the playback of videotape or the preserving of photographs). I have been asked to give the performers reason to perform, to offer critical insight and meaning into the theatricality of their performances; for, once others are needed to witness (to view) these rituals and interactions under the means of preservation via moving and still images, the wedding enters the status of live show.

As such, the disparate nature of this spectacle comes into being once we recognize the nature of other modes of performance, namely traditional theater. It is with the theater wherein the audience witnesses the unfolding of a scenario, views the performers across a two-dimensional plane of action, and willingly (for the most part, at least) distances itself from the spectacle and participates merely with moot interpretation and mental ingestion. The wedding I attended did not do this. Whereas the guests-as-audience was invited to participate under the influence of recording devices, microphones, live music, food items and so on, it always remained at a distance from, in this case, the three-dimensional plane of action; the bride and groom may certainly propose a reception brimming with vitality, but this derives from the couple’s unwillingness to perform alone and to alleviate the anxieties to arise from confronting the listlessness of their undertaking. The players of the theater are willing to perform before a desolate audience (or no audience at all) because have been given the task of engendering their characters with a primal energy vital in necessitating the resolution (or irresolution) of a scenario conceived by it’s playwright. The wedding does not provide this form of comfort. These performers (bride and groom/husband and wife) must, therefore, alleviate their own anxieties, promulgated by the unknowingness of married life, by inviting guests (and plenty of guests there were), into an atmosphere made celebratory-turned-theatrical.

And what do we, as either servile spectators or performers at the wedding, do to combat this phenomenon? To examine such creations as Tony and Tina’s Wedding, wherein the audience actively participates in a staged wedding, comfortable in knowing that it must come to a resolve, suggests a possible desire to reclaim what we loose while attending a wedding; to denounce our servility to “performers” whose sending of invitations is primarily a self-seeking gesture which acts as a collective axiolytic to their apprehension. To participate in Tony and Tina’s Wedding is to recognize that the performers are, in fact, just performers; they do not exist to utilize their audience selflessly and, as such, we are invited to attend the exact show repeatedly, altering it to our own tastes and improvisations rather than the other way around.

What the wedding provides, as a live performance/spectacle, is something entirely intangible to those invited. My experience four years ago forced me to become the spectator asked to participate (but never too much) for the sake of the participation of the performers themselves, reminding the actors that they will now live together “good hands.” As such – as a live performance wherein the audience views for the sake of pleasing the performers – the wedding exists as something unique to the sphere of theatricality; it is something entirely selfish.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Death of the City: Harry Callahan’s Otherworld

In an introductory essay to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1967 retrospective catalogue of Harry Callahan’s work, Sherman Paul writes, “From this private intimate world where the eye caresses the object, Callahan turns to an anonymous public world, abandoned, vacuous, almost devoid of life.” What is particularly distinctive of Callahan-as- photographer materializes once we recognize Callahan-as-Chicagoan; for Callahan, the malaise of urban spaces need not be limited to the sorts of images conjured by Paul Strand, whose black-clad businessmen walking in anonymous homogeneity reference and provoke the sort of cultural errs concerning alienation most popularly associated with contemporary New York. But Callahan’s images do not predominate on the New Yorker (although they have, in fact, explored the New Yorker), and this has permitted a body of work to utilize the so-called quintessential Americanism of Chicago in accentuating Sherman Paul’s description of “an anonymous public world, abandoned, vacuous, [and] devoid of life.” In the instance of Callahan, the “anonymous public world” exists in any American city (not, as irresponsibly assumed, only in New York), and the machinery liable for this barren and isolating wasteland of steel and undistinguished faces operates within a structure far more vast than the particularity of any one environment.

As an aesthete, Callahan renders his images without the impulsiveness attributed to more journalistic forms of urban photography; that is, the frame is never hindered but, instead, alleviated from any instances of spontaneity. The photographic eye, in this instance, is enamored by the formal qualities capable of being struck from the negative, and this is witnessed particularly with Callahan’s series entitled Chicago. Here, we never quite feel that Callahan has presented us with something “captured on whim,” and there exists a form of delicate aestheticism coupled with a grotesque theatricality important to what he has chosen to reveal (in opposition to this is Garry Winogrand, whose photographs – particularly his work from the 1960s – may in fact present instances of “grotesque theatricality,” although they arguably turn away from more formalistic aesthetic approaches). One photograph of Callahan’s in particular, Chicago 1960, illustrates the simplicity by which he chooses to see the passerby’s inside the frame; a young woman, head just above the ramp horizontal to the bottom of the image, is shown in profile while walking forward, distracted and seemingly unaware of the taller gentleman walking in the opposite path. It remains figures such as these that Callahan has presented to us, all the while framed in the foreground of minimalist backdrops (in this instance, the banality of a concrete wall), crossing paths while up-in-the-air, so to speak, and thus incapable of recognizing the other.

The photographs of faces Callahan had included in his Chicago series maintain this approach by which the negative spaces inside the frame are empowered, and yet the figures, caught unaware, recall the grotesque. Three images, each entitled Chicago 1950, show the faces of women either encircled by shadows, expressions almost artificial in their subtle frowns and stares, or masked by tawdry - if not outright garish - cosmetics. The urban dwellers of Harry Callahan’s Chicago are always seen, and while his use of lenses with wide focal lengths might allow these figures to be dwarfed by their environs, it is the environ itself which is always cast in darkness; we never do see the storefronts of Wabash Avenue, Chicago 1958 but we do, in fact, see the woman who walks in front of them, the cement sidewalk the only other portion of the frame to be illuminated. As such, Callahan’s individuals retain importance for the photographer, and the elements of The City, so to speak, do not necessarily dilute in their importance but instead surface as something devoid of life or charisma; images of faces shroud in cosmetics and unknowing pedestrians provide the only instances of “life” in Callahan’s city, as if the metropolis has been removed of any identity and replaced with the characteristic classification of “ghost town.” Are the storefront facades, obscured and masked by shadow, the ghosts or are the individuals?

“The lack of real drama in the lives of these people,” Sherman Paul states, “creates the dramatic value of these photographs, which tell us the city is no longer the great stage of life.” Wherein Stieglitz uses the photograph to convey instances of vitality and production in metropolitan life, Callahan’s sunlit figures, handbags and briefcases donned, resist being viewed as “interacting” citizens. Wherein Strand may very well encourage the association of modern malaise with that of New York, Callahan rejects the typicality of east coast, metropolitan disaffectedness so enamored into popular consciousness. Instead, these photographs suggest an otherworld of grotesque and ghostly passerby’s amidst the clutter of shadows cast by structures of steel; the sun never does thoroughly illuminate the storefronts in Callahan’s frame, and this delivers a succinct emphasis on the livelihood, however disinterested it may appear to be, of the theatrical characters of his images. Why Callahan remains a photographer of importance is appreciated once one recognizes Callahan as a brave social and cultural critic of contemporary American life. Rather than implant command to the city itself, Callahan forwards our attention to the significance of the individuals of the city; wilting, grotesque, masked and indifferent, it are these figures who Callahan’s metropolis renders power to. The photographer’s view provides little signs of advancement, as his is a world made apathetic and lifeless by it’s very inhabitants. With this concept at mind, it is no wonder the streets and storefronts of Callahan’s photographs never seem quite enchanting, for they have learned to emulate their masters.

R.D. 17 February 2006

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Misuse of Art: Catharsis, Interpretation, Sontag and De Maria

"Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life - its material plentitude, its sheer crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory facilities. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities, [...] that the task of the critic must be assessed." (Sontag, Against Interpretation)

If we are to become involved in aesthetic spectatorship, then what must become secondary is the emphasis we construct on the “content” of the piece; to relinquish fascination with meaning and intellectualization and celebrate the dynamic powers of form typify the call Susan Sontag hoped for, one wherein the critic remains responsible for showing what the work of art is as opposed to providing a set criteria from which the artist’s work may be “understood” (what the work means). The minimalist work of Walter de Maria may, in this instance, help demonstrate the general scramble to “conceptualize” a work of art and to dehumanize it to an extent that aesthetic spectatorship is forced into a state of transcendence; the work is soon replaced by the sterility of interpretive hodge-podge. To approach de Maria’s “Gothic Shaped Drawing,” a 62 x 35 cm sheet of white paper placed within the borders of a shield-shaped metal frame, is to tempt the emergence of interpretation and the translation of aesthetic material. But this temptation must, of course, never be further stimulated. Using “Gothic Shaped Drawing” illustratively, the viewer notes the enormity of “nothingness” in de Maria’s piece; our senses are directed towards the simplicity of the shape, of its cleanliness and streamline authority. The work itself is something to be admired because of this aesthetic choice, and the delightful qualities that de Maria present us with become diluted under the façade of hyper- intellectualization. “What does it mean?” “What is the artist attempting to say?” “What is the piece a metaphor for?” These questions are circular, and they do not prompt succinct responses to de Maria’s work or that of his contemporaries. Through the censorship of such phraseology, we must move towards new facets of appreciation; these facets must not falter towards the depths of interpretive presumptions, for the artist has prepared an aesthetic experience for us to engage in. Concentration on form utilizes human sensory perception and advocates for a patience of observation; “Gothic Shaped Drawing” remains, thus, a shape on a wall, the color of it’s interior not entirely different from the surface it hangs. And it is as such presence of visual and aesthetic simplicity that the work of the artist must be approached, reduced to its most fundamental elements and exhibited absent of unnecessary critical and cerebral accoutrement. The form is the content, as Sontag would advocate, and to hinder the work of the artist with the fallacy of this form-content distinction does not allow art to progress but, instead, presupposes that decoding (to interpret) is a natural step forward in appreciating something which has been primordially constructed as a “conceptual object.” Art does not have to be a “conceptual object.” Nor does art have to exist as a quick fix for contemporary anxieties in such a way that it’s principal force lay in appeasing the viewer’s desire to become less intimidated by the work itself. What remains intimidating of Walter de Maria’s piece is this very quality of not knowing; “What does it mean?” and all of its pie-in-the-sky answers will not prove sufficient in veering from the mysterious nature of art. But perhaps art should not be classified as “mysterious,” for this simply suggests that it exists as something to be “solved” before one may be permitted to continue their day comfortably amongst the malaise of the modern experience. “Gothic Shaped Drawing,” then, does not intimidate the irresponsible spectator, for it remains the irresponsible spectator who intimidates it. De Maria has not created something which engages us in purely philosophical questions and, furthermore, he has not channeled a metaphysical dilemma into his work with which the spectator must find daunting; to posit such forms of intellectual response onto a piece does little more than, as Sontag states, “make art manageable [and] comfortable.” If catharsis is responsible for the hermeneutic attitude of which critics helped delineate during the 20th century, then the 21st century must shun the spectator-as-translator approach towards the “new” forms of art currently emerging. If we do not turn away from intransigently hermeneutic aesthetic appreciation, then art will, in it’s being forced, through interpretation, to lessen what the spectator considers intimidating, certainly remain a form of therapy of the most malevolent kind.

R.D. 10 February 2006

Mimesis in Tarkovsky's Mirror

My initial exposure to Andrei Tarkovsky came with his 1972 Solaris; meandering with great deliberation, the film’s narrative embellished my appreciation for the subtle nuances of time and space, for the lingering camera coincided with the filmmaker’s refusal to alternate cuts during even the most banal of sequences. This approach to the cinematic experience - to aesthetic spectatorship in general - moved farther away from being undermined some time later, upon my viewing another of Tarkovsky’s works, Mirror. If his Solaris combined nostalgia for Earth with an aesthetic predicated on elongating the shot, Mirror’s combination of remembrance of one’s childhood with a stream of consciousness narrative certainly proves successful in emulating (or “sculpting” as Tarkovsky has stated) reality. What Mirror accomplishes is something so entirely abstract upon initial exposure that it becomes difficult to articulate, for the narrative itself provokes the viewer’s own personal history to surface while encouraging appreciation for the non-linearity of memory and for the blending of individual experience. If a work of art were to be deemed mimetic, then Tarkovsky’s certainly fulfills this classification; aged newsreel footage of a Soviet-era air balloon in descent appears before us while a movement from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater plays; a woman washes her hair methodically while her children sleep; a man walking through a vast field of grass is stopped by a sudden gust of wind. Tarkovsky’s emphasis on time and “reality” is thus created through a modicum of careful layering and, as a result of this narrative construction, the viewer is granted permission to become enamored in the work’s successful conceptualization of an abstraction. Childhood, in this instance, is the “abstraction” and, as being such, it stimulates the the artist’s reality. How might the artist mimic reality if it exists as something so entirely solipsistic that portrayal of it may be deemed ludicrous or irresponsible? As Tarkovsky has shown, reality is fleeting because human experience is impatient enough to evade it. The offer he makes with Mirror, therefore, seems to reverse our preconceived ideas concerning not merely spectatorship but, more importantly, regarding our daily ways of seeing. Never before have I witnessed a work of art so profoundly emulated the passage of time and rendered the facets of human experience.

R.D. 7 February 2006

The Privacy of Aesthetic Experience

Film Forum on Houston Street was not entirely filled with patrons by one thirty. A few lower east side types flocked to the cinema, most of whom seemed to have taken dates; others, instead, sat and read columns within the likes of The Village Voice and The New York Times (Arts and Leisure section only, of course) while seemingly embalmed by a whiff of the so-called cerebral sophistication of “metropolitan life.” The lumpen literati herding to see the screening of a Bergman film, dressing in black during July, making use of such phraseology as “departure from his previous work” and “brilliant, tremendously cohesive”; the stereotypes generally attributed to such an urbane demographic were not at all challenged.

How does one approach film, an art form relatively young and distinctive through it’s use of editing, under such circumstances? Enclosure inside a darkened space amidst the flicker of a light capable of engendering the form of imaginative and emotional responses elicited otherwise only by dreams, I am forced into spectatorship. But the cinematic experience, particularly in this instance, is something which must exist without the facets capable of permitting it to thrive in an intermutual atmosphere (such as a movie house). Instead, the medium is something which confronts me privately; it exists as something similar to other modes or artistic exhibition in that it requires the collective nature of a theater to entirely dissolve from the mind of the spectator.

Upon the projectionist’s starting of the print’s first reel, a groupthink mentality arose and, instead of experiencing the almost psycho-kinetic responses the film had produced for me upon previous personal viewing, the Harriet Andersson character’s cancerous cries before a dormant Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin offered nothing other than a stream of presumptions. I find these presumptions, these mingling forms of anticipation, to result from succumbing to the idea that the cinematic experience should take form as something entirely collective and, subsequently, from the belief that film spectatorship should occur with not just one body but many bodies inside the particularities of a single space. Experience has shown to me that such is not the most advantageous for the medium. I realize now that I had become hyperaware of Bergman’s manipulation of the temporal qualities of cinema and that my own form of spectatorship became altogether influenced by how I assumed the audience was reacting towards the work’s subtleties. Had I emerged from Film Forum not having previously been exposed to “Cries and Whispers,” my opinion of the piece would have been more closely aligned with that of a tediously paced chamber drama. Permission to appreciate, independently, would not have been granted to me; the power of private spectatorship would not provide the mode of contrast between aesthetic viewing as communal act and aesthetic viewing as personal experience.

I believe it has become fundamentally important for this rejection of the intermutual aesthetic experience to surface, for the longevity of the arts in general remains dependent on the singularity of interpretation. The tumultuous State powers of the 20th century, operating concurrently with such malevolent tools of mass-conditioning as Josef Goebels, have shown the dangers of “generalized” or “safe” aesthetics, those of which serve a politically determined consciousness. While I certainly will not compare viewing a motion-picture (an art form predicated on visual aesthetics ) in the company of others to the forms of artistic control seen under totalitarian regimes, my experience with “Cries and Whispers” at Film Forum enabled me to further welcome, with tremendous enthusiasm, the importance of exposure to works of art on an individual basis. I, for one, would not be able to engage in a personal “dialogue” with Bergman’s film, accumulating and drawing upon information from my own interpretation, had I not been exposed to the work in a state of utter isolation. In this instance (for the response to exist on a personal level, for the spectator to engage and interact without the pressure of presumptions), the aesthetic experience must, like the spectator, be able to individuate.

R.D. 25 January 2006