Archive for February, 2013

Begging For Answers

February 26, 2013

In 1992 Krzystof Wodiczko premiered Alien Stick, followed by variations and eventually Mouthpiece. These works exploited culture’s fascination with, and preference for, video imagery. Later Al Gore and Michael Moore presented us with film epics, alarming calls to action. Sadly, not much took place. Choose whichever trajectory you’d like, global warming or gun violence in the US, the two epics did not facilitate the needed change. Most of this can be attributed to what Wodiczko’s early work so successful utilized- culture’s fascination and romance with video. Reference Baudrillard on the nature and intimacy of simulacra within culture. Enough said. Though Alien Staff, and Mouthpiece made immediate and material introduction and reference to the subject of their video presentation, Michael and Al’s films did not. For any artist today interested in actual, in our time, change, the challenge seems to lie not in presenting/representing the subject matter in the imagery of film or video, but in calling attention to and embracing the actual subject material of their work, the social utilitarian raison d’etre of their art. Baudrillard’s simulacra is a copy of a copy without reference or need of an original. A gondola ride within the Venice of Las Vegas leaves no residue of the actual Venice slowly being submerged within the rising oceans produced by global warming. The question for any would be socially active artist today becomes “When does a simulacra disintegrate, urgently necessitating reference to the original in order to reestablish stability? What disrupts the simulacra experience, the virtual reverie, so profoundly and in such a way that the original must be resurrected, reaffirmed?” How can this be done?

Begging For More

February 18, 2013

The Licking County Concerned Citizens for Public Health and Environment held a meeting on February 17, 2013. The 2-18-13 Newark Advocate reported on the meeting and quoted committee member Carol Apacki as saying “We want to raise public awareness on this issue, and people can take that information and do what they want with it.”
How many times have we heard that? Is it doing any good? If not, why not? What alternative approach could there possibly be? Why can’t we imagine it?
We all know (ala knee jerk reaction) that taking “that information and do[ing] what they want with it” can span the spectrum of responses—from creationist fundamentalist religious ones, to economic conservative or liberal ones, from I’m-aware-of-a-lot-of-things-let’s-not-rock-the-boat to radical activism. Providing information for the recipient to “do what they want with it” doesn’t work. It fails because it does not produce the intended response– folks actively engaging in the “cause” to produce the demanded change. Sounds reasonable and liberal enough. I give people a plethora of information. They can’t help but conclude with the hoped for response. And yet repeatedly THAT is not occurring. Why not?
Upton Sinclair writes The Jungle. Readers are outraged that this is what is involved with the food they eat. Because it is not good for the public health and environment there is a demand for change. Change occurs. This is the historic narrative approach. The narration, as all narrations do, follows a this, then this, then this time line model. Repeating the narration repeats the time line model. The historic approach (implicated by a time line) leads through the present into the inevitability of the future. Being inevitable creates some urgency—resist (facilitate change) or be overcome by the anticipated march of history. This was the approach with regard to most matters leading up to the end of the twentieth century. A simple but effective logic that contributes to the formation of what Ranciere regards as “sense”.
Previous posts of this blog have been investigating video in contemporary culture, especially the aspect whereby video performs memory, producing time and difference. Here’s a time lapse video of a glacier disappearing. Want to see it again? Here’s a Michael Moore film on the easy accessibility of guns in our society. It is filled with a lot of information. Let’s replay the Michael Moore film. Video performing memory, as opposed to narrative (re)constructing memory along a “first this, then that” basis (narrative always begins and inevitably ends, even when repeated), dispenses with the inevitable and its implication of urgency. Want to see that glacier disappear again? There is no connection between this performed memory of the glacier disappearing (which we can repeat ad nauseum) and any inevitable outcome of this memory, with any urgency to act on some (nonexistent) inevitability. “We want to raise public awareness on this issue, and people can take that information and do what they want with it.” And many things are done with this information, as many things are done with videos.
So what works given that the obsolete narrative approach and the contemporary assumption that creating awareness will produce an inevitable intended response don’t? Video as communication of ongoing event seems to be especially effective in generating the desired inevitable response and its needed urgency. Whether natural disaster, victim account, covert filming of illegal activity, etc. video presentation becomes akin to Sinclair’s presentation in terms of ultimate outcome. But this brings us to privacy concerns, Occupy and eventually, the current ongoing discourse on “the right to look.” Occupy seizes on the “public”-ness of public space. An analogous scenario could be made for the various “public” rights of expression, freedom of the press and dissemination of information, universal internet access, etc. Privacy rights and laws are becoming ever more a priority for the 1% determining our governance. The right to look is not found anywhere in the document drafted by the eligible 5% who governed the land, serfs, indentured servants, and slaves in late 18th century America. Please, oh rulers of our great land, we beg of you, let us look (and see), and communicate (via digital media) what is going on around us right now– not “to raise public awareness” but to communicate and act immediately, which is what we already do when we drive our cars and perform at work.
Hmmm… Somehow that last line doesn’t look just right. Wonder why that is?

Begging By The Way

February 17, 2013

“BILL MOYERS: To whom or to what do you owe that defining choice of Omar Khayyám over the Playboy calendar? Because that’s the story of your life.
MARTÍN ESPADA: I certainly owe those who came before me. In particular, I owe my father. My father did not have a college education. There were not books of poetry all over the house. But there was this book. It was significant and profound for someone to hand me a book of poetry. I was surrounded already by the images in that Playboy calendar. And they were not as meaningful to me as the images in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. And so I’m very grateful to my father for giving me that that book.”
(from the transcript of Bill Moyers’ conversation with Martin Espada, Moyers&Co. 2-15-2013)

“Tarde’s achievement, Lazzarato claims, is to have made memory the constitutive element of a social or economic quantity and to have understood memory as a production of time and difference.” (Ina Blom’s essay The Autobiography of Video: Outline for a Revisionist Account of Early Video Art, Critical Inquiry Vol. 39 No.2, Pg. 282)

And what if the person interviewed by Bill Moyers had said he encountered the Rubáiyát and the Playboy calendar within the same period of his youth? And that no one had introduced him to the one or the other? And that ultimately, it was (to paraphrase Donald Judd), just one thing after another? And what if “memory as a production of time and difference” is what accounts for what made one person’s experience “significant and profound” and the other’s just another in a continuum of events, without time or place, but only quality? And what if this likewise makes for why one individual’s poetry is received as, is considered as “significant and profound”, and the other’s not? And what if this accounts for why one poet, whose work is considered “significant and profound”, finds himself interviewed by Bill Moyers (who only deals with what is “significant and profound”) while the other will never appear? A previous blog post, Getting A Little Behind In My Work 12-13-12, considered “Video’s unique ability to describe or represent (sans words) and contemporary culture’s preference for being shown rather than told”. Another earlier post, The Deer Hunter 11-25-12, states that “A video documentation performs an event as opposed to a written literary narrative that relies on a timeline structure (this comes before that).” “Significant and profound” now begin to aggregate around the “production” of time and difference rather than the accumulation of time and difference (the historic perspective, the one favored by Moyers). “Significant and profound” begin to actively participate in and contribute to the mechanism of what Ranciere describes as sense. Memory performed as video can make no inherent claim of “significant and profound” quality; what is produced within video is just one thing after another. The video itself, as a historic event, may be described as “significant and profound” but this begs the question. Considering that video, like memory, can be understood “as a production of time and difference”, for whom is the memory (either as event or as video) “significant and profound”? And why?

Jury Duty!

February 14, 2013

The legal summons that must be honored, even if only to petition exception. Standing in an overcrowded room full of homogenous strangers, most seated and self-absorbed, some reading magazines or books, the entirety quieter than any school library during exam week. And all so fashionably retro! Electronic appliances, like cell phones or tablets, are strictly verboten in the halls of jurisprudence. The bailiff walked in and activated a locally produced instructional video about the court, the jury, and civil and criminal law. He exited to the electronically starved masses becoming immediately mesmerized with the staged performance of real life Perry Mason. Peeking out from under the TV judges’ robes were ties, the defendant wore a tie, the male prosecutors were arrayed in ties, the male jurors also wore ties. The video male bailiff was sporting a tie. The women lawyers and jurors were dressed to impress, bejeweled in their finest Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. Scanning the video’s captive real life audience, not a tie in the bunch, not a single gussied up femme fatale, not an iota of bling. Primarily that “everyday” casual look, witnessed at any Walmart or Home Depot. The video started to loop again with nary a conscientious citizen daring to intervene. Finally the not made for TV bailiff (wearing a suit and tie) returned, soon after followed by the carefully groomed and fashionably correct clerk. She announced the entrance of the robed but with tie prominently displayed judge. He in turn announced the defendant had just pleaded guilty, there would be no trial, we could all go home. Filing out of the room we faced our collective raison d’etre there in the hall, wearing a Rasputin-like soviet blouse (just a neck and arm holes in what could have passed for a blue sack), arms hand cuffed to a thick leather belt that wasn’t made to support loose pajama style pants, ankles shackled together over a pair of steel grey crocs.

Governor Kasich And Unconstitutional Funding Of Education In The State Of Ohio

February 3, 2013

The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled the state’s funding of education to be unconstitutional, not once, but 4 consecutive times. During that period, several governors have presented plans to rectify the inequity, all for naught. The unconstitutional condition remains the status quo. Recently, entering into his third year as governor of the state of Ohio, John Kasich presented his plan.

“We want to deliver the resources of this state fairly,” says Kasich. “We want to make sure every boy and girl no matter what district they come from are going to be in a position to have the resources they need to be able to compete with any other district across the state.” (John Kasich January 31, speech at the Polaris Hilton.)

What does the ability to compete have to do with learning, with education? Response to the speech focused on funding inequity and that the funding withdrawn and cut over the past two years would not continue. No one questioned the underlying assumption evident in this quote—that competition contributes to learning, that competition is somehow an integral part of learning. It is difficult to imagine. Just how would that look? Would learning be like a chili competition? But wait, learning to cook chili requires collaboration and cooperation. Culinary education does not take place when the aspiring chef is thrown out of the kitchen for not cutting up the onions fast enough. Maybe the contribution that competition makes to learning would be through shaming the non performing student. “Why can’t you be like her?” Somehow, that doesn’t appear to present a very promising trajectory. I know, sports! Sports are competitive, so he must have been referring to sports in making sure “every boy and girl no matter what district they come from are going to be in a position to have the resources they need to be able to compete with any other district across the state.” Yet like with cooking, sports skills are learned within regimens of cooperation and collaboration. Drills and exercises are done with combined groups of underachievers, achievers and over achievers. Competition may determine who ultimately represents the particular school or district on game day, but not who learns. Keep trying to come up with the connection or link between competition and learning/education. There is none. As the January 18 post, Lance Armstrong, points out, competition is about what education is not. Armstrong’s competitiveness generated a learning, but not one that society would prefer to have reproduced. One would need to stretch, and really stretch, the meaning of the word “education” to include indoctrination (and “learning” to be indoctrinate) in order to arrive at an ostensible benefit competition makes to learning and education. How different it would have sounded if the governor would have said “We want to make sure every boy and girl no matter what district they come from are going to be in a position to have the resources they need to be able to cooperate and collaborate with any other district across the state.” Cooperation, collaboration and the ability to work together are definitely part of learning and education, as well as worthwhile life skills to promote. Perhaps the continuous emphasis on competition is why the state’s funding of education remains at odds with the Ohio constitution.

Some Assembly Required

February 3, 2013

Near the conclusion of his essay The “Return” of 3-D: On Some of the Logics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty First Century, Thomas Elsaesser recounts an anecdote of displaying on his laptop old photos of his friends that he had digitized. Looking at the images, the seven year old daughter of one of the couples began trying to “click” on the photos of her parents made well before she was born, rather than ask “who are these folks, when was this, etc.” Seeing that nothing was happening with each click of the cursor, she walked away. Elsaesser uses this to draw out the cultural shift in images. “The idea of a digital photo as a window to view (to contemplate or be a witness to) had for her been replaced by the notion of an image as a passage or a portal, an interface or part of a sequential process—in short, as a cue for action.” (Critical Inquiry Vol. 39, No. 2 Pg. 240-241)
“Before I let this steam drill beat me, I’ll die with my hammer in my hand.” So goes the story of John Henry down in Pence Springs, West Virginia. Of course, in John Henry’s time, tools of hand labor were continuously being replaced by powered tools. The bit and brace eventually were supplanted by the electric drill, hand saws by various electric powered circular saws, etc. These in turn have “evolved” with cordless battery powered models. Likewise large stationary shop tools, originally endless belts systems with power generated by water wheels or steam gave way to large electric models, eventually the smaller portable models of today. The operators of these innovations, the craftsmen and artisans, still needed to rely on their attentiveness and physical prowess (athleticism) to accomplish any work. Their energy was consumed by maintaining attentiveness through the drudgery (and danger) of machine repetition as opposed to the drudgery of repetitive, totally physical exertion. Henry Ford capitalized on and cultivated this shift in culture. Hardt and Negri (amongst others) have adumbrated the shift in the nature of labor today, from the mind numbing but physical engagement of the Fordist era to the physically numbing but mental exertion of today’s service economy. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed the same phenomena occurring analogous to what Elsaesser describes. Students come in to work on their sculpture projects in the woodshop, with earbuds in and smart phones at hand. Somehow the tools don’t do what they anticipate, don’t fulfill their expectations. They walk away miffed, assuming the distorted creation they’ve found themselves with is on account of some software deficiency. After all, the tools of contemporary labor must have the latest software. One wouldn’t buy even a new model car without it. Stationary and powered hand tools, even those with rudimentary supplemental software, don’t respond too well to just point and click—to the operator feeding in the material and expecting the tool to produce the desired results. Save in the totally automated robotic systems, attentiveness and athleticism have not been displaced, even by the new “safe” tools loaded with sensors and brakes. Though the Elsaesser anecdote’s emphasis is on the “cue for action”, the greater concern may be for the loss of the ability to contemplate or witness.