Toward a New Project

Work in progress...
The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map which  exactly covers its territory. --Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (31)

For Debord, in the society of the spectacle the map has as much information as the world. In the present society—which is both less social and more spectacular—it could be said that the map contains even more information than the world itself. Metadata—and the endless algorithms needed to interpret it and to make it useful—is a supermap (or the wrapper that creates hyperspace, in Jameson’s terms), a no-coordinates snapshop of the universe, n-dimensional and descriptive to a fault.

The weaponized drone zeroing in on a "suspected militant"—identified by algorithms interpreting metadata, including patterns of phone calls, emails, and web searches—is not an object moving through Cartesian space along a predictable trajectory toward a specific target, as a cannon ball once was; the drone is a program electronically delivered through no-coordinates space to execute an amount of information.

The drone operates outside the confines of established law. The War on Terror is a postmodern, no-coordinates war and as such is beyond the rational system of rules deduced from principles established during the Enlightenment (including the Constitution). The drone knows no sovereignty, nor declaration, nor treaty, nor right. The drone
and its massive, accompanying infrastructure of surveillance, "intelligence," and analysis by algorithmknows nothing; it is but a surfer on the world wide web of military omnipotence, searching and destroying. 

Computer warfare is similarly unrestricted and exists outside the process of judicial review. The digital, however, is also not entirely immaterial; computer viruses become bombs, as in the release of the Stuxnet virus to destroy Iranian centrifuges. The drone and the virus are one: weaponized programs, solely operated by and answerable to the executive branch.

The President,  the executive, says, "I is a fiction." The executioner is multiple. There is no author; authority now comes from the algorithm. No justice, no peace, just the algorithm unfurling unfathomable amounts of data, declaring, "There, in that place, there will be death." Or rather, patterns of information direct people to run their programs to execute tasks. The myth of the "dithering" President, too Hamlet to start a real war, is misdirection. The President doesn't need to make the call. The algorithms send the drones. The result is an explosion in Yemen, or Somalia, or Pakistan, or Iraqbut for the drone and its algorithms those places do not exist any more than area codes exist for cell phones.



The bull Oficial, from the ranch of the Arribas brothers, fought in Cadiz the 5th of October, 1884, caught and gored a banderillero, jumped the barrera and gored the picador Chato three times, gored a civil-guard, broke the leg and three ribs of a municipal guard, and the arm of a night watchman. He would have been an ideal animal to turn loose when the police are clubbing manifestants in front of the city hall. Had he not been killed a strain of police-hating bulls might have been bred which would give the populace the advantage they lost in street fighting with the disappearance of the paving stone. A paving stone at short range is more effective than a club or sabre. The disappearance of cobble and paving stones has been more of a deterrent to the overthrowing of governments than machine guns, tear bombs and automatic pistols. For it is in the clashes when the government does not want to kill its citizens but to club, ride down and beat them into submission with the flat of a sabre that a government is overthrown. Any government that uses the machine guns once too often on its citizens will fall automatically. Regimes are kept in with the club and the blackjack, not the machine gun or bayonet, and while there were paving stones there was never an unarmed mob to club.
--Hemingway, Ernest. Death in the Afternoon. New York: Scribner, 1932. 111-112.


What Lies Beneath the Pavement?

Revolution requires acts of imagination. In order to turn away from the world as-it-is, one must be able to envision, even if only in an inchoate way, that another world is possible and that this potentiality is, in and of itself, worth fighting for.

During the 1968 Paris uprising, a popular spray-can dictum asserted "Those who lack imagination cannot imagine what is lacking." Another, more poetic, and ultimately more powerful, had it: "Beneath the pavement, the beach!" The sand--revealed by pulling up the paving stones to use as projectiles--suggested either another world, or another dimension to this one.

If creativity is firepower in the contest of imagination, however, the first victory has gone not to the dissidents but to the bankers. For our current decade and its predicaments, we could update the slogan quoted above to: "Beneath the wheat, the banks!" It is the bankers--by which I mean any of the technocrats that constitute the financial sector--who have successfully re-imagined the world. They have effectively invented a new reality in which finance is separate from the actual economy (even commodities futures are now merely abstract financial instruments) and politics separate from the people (in a technocracy, the elected government is obsolete if not irrelevant).

To win this contest it is necessary to turn again, to revolt against the bankers' revolution. We must be even more imaginative, even more inventive. Those that can dream the future will take power in the present. "Occupation" is a good start--to give significance again to everyday space and thereby everyday life--but it is only a beginning. We must demand of ourselves total acts of imagination and unprecedented poetry: works of living, feats of being. We must transform the very world, inside and out, with breathless displays of daredevil creativity.

This creativity need not be bounded by works of art, even those that are situational, relational, or activist as the case may be. Acts in and of themselves can be creative. Every step, conceived and executed correctly, can be poetry. The street is a blank slate and our every movement can be a phoneme in a new language that will describe a new reality.

Occupy the pavement and then dig deeper. The city is thin and its skin is penetrable. There is water underground.


Mark So Appreciations V: END ROAD WORK / NO PARKING / BOB LOVES BETTY (2011) for Liz

A tape plays in a room. The tape is mostly blank except for frequent, irregular interruptions--short spurts of recording.

The sounds suggest that the tape was made while on a walk, pausing occasionally to hit the record button. The reason for turning on the tape player at a given point is unclear--why here and not there?--but there is an overall consistency to the experience. Though no rule as to its construction is easily discernible, a sense of limitlessness is produced by even the implied presence of limitations.

As Mark So said of this work, "the field is always present;" it does not have to be created. It can be invoked with minimal gestures, such as interruptions--in this case, the sounds from the tape interrupt the sound of the room itself, thereby bringing it to awareness. Even a cut can elucidate the field. Akin to the "zips" in a Barnett Newman painting, the interruption provides a measure or a post against which to experience the expanse.

This is negative time. Just as positive space in painting is complemented by negative space, So has found a way to use stripes of negative time to produce an awareness of the vastness of positive time. Put another way, by foregrounding the presence of nothing So produces an awareness of being.

Other than the sounds themselves, the title is the only other information we have about the piece--END ROAD WORK / NO PARKING / BOB LOVES BETTY (2011) for Liz. Just as the sound does, the title produces an image (an awareness, an idea) with great economy, by utilizing absence as a descriptive tool.


The tape was created by So as a performance (or perhaps many performances) of his score nothing which can be used (As clouds reappear after rains) [for Eileen Myles]. All of the absences presented by the tape are present in the score as well. It is interesting that even without seeing the score, the listener can in a sense hear it in the work itself--as absence.

Like the music it produces, the score is elegant and spare. Part of his ongoing Ashbery series, So places a pair of quotations from John Ashbery's poem, "The Thousand Islands", which double as both epigraph and performance instruction.
A promise of so much that is to come,
Extracted, accepted gladly
But within its narrow limits
No knowledge yet


But your
Idea is not continuing—a swift imperfect
Condensation of the indifference you feel
To be the worn fiber and bone which must surround you
For the permanence of what's already happened in you.
The original poem--its language fragmented and decontextualized--is repurposed, swatches of Ashbery's words applied like torn paper in a collage: pieces of poem implying a whole.

So's own instructions--"an impulsive recording of nothing—/brief and fleet/[maybe repeated"--are situated between and to the right of the two Ashbery passages. Visually, it is nearly in the interstice between them, turning the ellipsis itself into a tacit instruction. And there is one further elliptical collage: the title is pieced together from fragments. "nothing which can be used" completes the dangling "No knowledge yet". The logic of the score is constellar, nonlinear.

Like the performance it is meant to prescribe, the score is a collection of ellipses, fragments and zips written with such economy that it makes a currency out of absence.


Poetic Realty: The Films of Alexandra Cuesta

“The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born of a comparison, but from the bringing together of two more or less distant realities. The more distant and true the relationship between the two realities, the stronger the image will be and the more emotional power and poetic reality it will have.” —Pierre Reverdy. “L’Image,” Nord-Sud. No.13. March, 1918.

Diary-like, first-person footage made with a point-and-shoot camera chronicles a day in Beirut. Everyday occurrences—listening to music in a car, walking down the street—are thrown into sharp relief by a single cut. The explosion itself is not photographed, only its aftermath: a running crowd, billowing smoke, broken glass and, later, a television informing us that, in fact, this is the explosion that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The film ends with a truly simple image that, in context, is breathtaking: looking out the window of a small plane as it ascends, we see Beirut from a distance. The very ordinariness of the shot—its simple, even banal beauty—feels extraordinary in contrast to the events that precede it. It is literally transcendent.

This is Alexandra Cuesta’s second film, Beirut 2.14.05
(2008). Although it is in some ways the hardest of her three films to grasp, it is also the clearest illustration of a principle that runs through all her work. Cuesta cuts declarative images and concrete sounds together in such a way that they evoke an emotional response. Though her films are strictly observational, they construct a poetic reality that, while present in the camerawork itself, is largely accomplished in the editing.

In her first film, Recordando el Ayer
(2007), the images break cleanly from one composition to the next by way of hard cuts. Moving freely in and out of buildings, from shots of individuals to near-abstract depictions of light, with no overt motive besides the logic of feeling, a portrait of a neighborhood and its inhabitants comes slowly into focus. One senses that in this work, accuracy regarding a sense of place is paramount to any other documentary concerns.

The sound, in contrast to the image, flows in a nearly unbroken wave from the beginning to the end of the film. As a listener, you begin to drift the way you might while listening to the freeway or the sea. Cuesta told me she wanted to make silence out of sound, something even quieter than silent film. In so doing, she reveals to us the beauty of things we thought we knew, things we ceased to notice because they are so common. It is the din of our everyday experience, foregrounded.

The imagery in her films is equally attentive to what might otherwise go unnoticed: the play of light through the perforated steel of a bus pavilion or reflections falling from an elevated train. Likewise, she chooses to photograph in spaces that are underrepresented or otherwise overlooked: an Ecuadorian neighborhood in Queens, New York and a corridor of east/west space defined by public transportation in Los Angeles. Both films—Recordando el Ayer
and Piensa En Mi (2009), respectively—illuminate and dignify their underprivileged subjects. Cuesta’s camera is respectful, at times even reverential; her portraits of individuals are intimate yet also reserved. There is an agreement, it seems, between subject and photographer—an unspoken bond whose presence is powerfully felt.

Although these portraits are important, Cuesta’s cinema is not unique for its images of the underprivileged but for its evocation of the world in which they live, a world that is defined by a different sense of time. Failed systems and their attendant agony run parallel to the time that the affluent take for granted. Like the presence of the third-world within the first, interminable waiting and dysfunctional services coexist with the comparative instantaneity of the automobile, the internet and the iPhone. Cuesta’s strategy for her third film, Piensa En Mi
, makes this clear. The “space” she chooses to photograph is not a neighborhood, but a bus line running east to west and back again. The bus moves through the upper-class neighborhoods of western Los Angeles, but remains separate: two spaces coexisting without commingling.

Space, or our experience of it, is defined by our relationship to time. The pedestrian and the bus-rider alike live in another reality defined by waiting. If you find yourself in the flats of Los Angeles—standing in the road, waiting for the bus’ silhouette to crest the horizon, able to see for more than a mile—you are in time, not moving through it. Cuesta’s films conjure the dream-like reality of just such a moment that stretches into the distance, where time and space are one. Her films are portraits of places where you can feel time. And so, for all of its documentary qualities, Cuesta’s work is eerily elusive—the effect of the films closer to reverie than reportage. Watching Piensa En Mi
is like daydreaming while looking out the bus window—at once, near and far, objective and abstract.

Cuesta uses a cinematic form free from the strictures of description, where the cuts produce feeling in lieu of continuity. Mark Rothko once remarked that “feelings have different weights”; in Cuesta’s editing, the relative weight of one shot collides with the lightness of the next to produce not an idea, but an emotion. Cutting from a close-up to a wide open space, from a detail of light to a long shot, the contrast creates an opening
and in the interstice, a feeling can form.

The differential between the two shots is generative: two realities, distant and true, coalescing in an image. Therein lies the strength, emotional power and poetic reality of these films.


Ai Weiwei detained

The Guardian UK reports that Ai Weiwei, the most renowned living Chinese artist, has been detained by police.

Before boarding a flight to Hong Kong, he was detained at immigration. His assistant was also detained. Ai's studio has been surrounded by plainclothes police and is thought to have been raided. No one can get in touch with Ai and posts about him on Weibo, a Chinese microblog similar to Twitter, are being deleted.
Asked about Ai, an airport police spokesman said: "I do not have the obligation to tell you the information. You may have got your information wrong; even if it is right, you have to go through certain procedures to make inquiries, not just make a phone call."
The Guardian reports that Ai had previously been relatively free from this type of harassment because of both his family and his international reputation.


Too Early, Too Late

Marc Lynch's post on all that's riding on the military intervention in Lybia may be the most sensible thing I've read on the situation yet. Fears that the Obama administration reacted too slowly seem not only unjustified, but myopic. The United States simply cannot intervene in an Arab conflict unilaterally ever again, nor can it credibly or sustainably send a land army into Africa, the Middle East or Asia. This latter assertion is not my own, but secretary of defense Robert Gates'.

The line that the President is "dithering" plays too well into one of the many competing narratives not-so-quietly emanating from the conservative camp that indict the Obama administraition no matter the actual facts. This particular trope is Obama as Hamlet, the president whose equivocations preclude action. In reality, military intervention should never be entered lightly and haste guarantees failure. Marc Lynch patiently explains why.


Tashi Wada: Alignment

Tashi Wada’s greatest asset as a composer is his clarity. His best compositions are almost entirely transparent, so that even if you are unfamiliar with theories of just intonation or the history of experimental music composition, you can often perceive the shape and direction of a Wada piece from its inception. Alignment, Wada’s first LP, is no exception. There is a directness to its form that allows one to apprehend its shape in time almost immediately.

James Tenney—a clear influence on Wada even more than La Monte Young or Tony Conrad—once said that in his own music you knew where it was going even if you didn’t know what it would sound like when you got there. This could be a description of Alignment itself, an 8 violin canon in just intonation whose movements through a dense, descending scale create a clear, compelling shape in time with a full sound that is at once organic and extraordinary. Alignment presents a tonal richness and complexity unlike any available to more traditionally tempered compositions. The scale structures the piece and the structure is the piece itself.

The violins move sequentially through the first 128 pitches of the overtone series, transposed into a single octave. The result is a movement through harmony and dissonance that speaks to the physicality of sound—the music becomes audibly tighter, more tense, as the tiered movements through the scale cause certain frequencies to pull upon one another. It also relies upon and draws attention to the ability of the mind to perceive several planes of information simultaneously, for as the canon progresses, certain tones come into alignment with one another, while others simultaneously phase into dissonance, harmonies and their opposite sounding at the same time, existing in parallel and moving past one another as though on separate tracks.

As an object, the record itself is conceptually neat. The sides of the record, “Direct” and “Retrograde,” are inverse to one another and the act of flipping the record essentially reverses the action of the 8 violins, making them move out of the alignment they had only recently attained. The end of each side suggests the beginning of the next—a musical ouraboros both infinite and already complete. Though the recordings are essentially the same—only their ordering is different—the effect is astonishingly dissimilar, a study in the pyscho-sonic effect of ascending versus descending tones. What’s more, mastered at 45 rpm, it is essentially two records in one: for faithful reproduction it should be played at 45, but 33⅓ offers another, extended and altogether different listening experience.

Any writing on Alignment would be incomplete without ample praise for Marc Sabat’s impeccable performance. Sabat is one of the foremost performers of experimental music in the 21st century; his renditions of Morton Feldman and James Tenney have made him legendary in the experimental music community. His mastery of microtonal violin music is in full evidence on Alignment, where he plays all 8 parts. Sabat’s control, stability and directness are integral to the dry, precise warmth of the recording, the effect of the sound inseparable from his performance.

“Music should be as direct as possible,” Wada once told me. Clarity of composition, fullness of sound and the directness of effect make Alignment as convincing a sonic argument for this dictum as one could ever imagine.


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