10/15/14

Interstices

What follows are a few fragments from an unfinished essay I wrote in 2007 for Thom Andersen's class on Deleuze. From this distance, it seems impossible and perhaps unnecessary to complete the essay; yet in re-reading it, I thought that it contained enough original scholarship that it could be of value to someone and so I have posted it here. I have cleaned up the footnotes and added embedded videos where appropriate, but for the most part, it remains untouched, a document of my thinking at the time.

I
Paraphrasing Pierre Reverdy, Jean-Luc Godard repeatedly states that an image derives its emotional and intellectual power from a juxtaposition that is distant and true.[i] In Notre Musique, he creates an essay-film-within-a-film that analyzes his own method of accomplishing this. He refers to it, perhaps with some irony, as “shot/counter-shot.” Addressing us, the audience, at the same time that he addresses his audience within the film, he holds up two still pictures: an example of shot/counter-shot from a Howard Hawks film. But the images are not distant enough: there can be no truth, no reconciliation of distant realities, “because the director is incapable of seeing the difference between a man and a woman.”[ii] The rest of the self-reflexive essay is devoted to relating realities that are distant and true. One particularly striking example is worth quoting at length:
“In 1938, Heisenberg and Bohr were walking in the Danish countryside talking about physics. They came to Elsinore castle. The German scientist said, ‘Oh, there’s nothing special about this castle!’ [realist painting of castle] The Danish physicist said, ‘Yes, but if you say “Hamlet’s castle,” [black] then it becomes extraordinary.’ [electronic, still image of castle shrouded in fog. cut to a lamp, swinging against a black background] Elsinore the real, Hamlet the imaginary. Shot and counter-shot. Imaginary: certitude. Reality: incertitude. The principle of cinema: go towards the light and shine it on our night. Our music.”[iii]


In his book, Cinema II: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze refers to this method of editing as the interstice. He claims the interstice signifies the movement from a cinema of Being to a cinema of becoming. “It is the method of BETWEEN, ‘between two images’, which does away with all cinema of the One. It is the method of AND, ‘this and then that’, which does away with all cinema of Being = is.” [iv]
According to Deleuze, the interstice is not a given, it must be induced.

Given one image, another image must be chosen which will induce an interstice between the two. This is not an operation of association, but of differentiation, as the mathematicians say, or of disappearance, as the physicists say: given one potential, another one has to be chosen, not any whatever, but in such a way that a difference of potential is established between the two, which will be productive of a third or of something new.[v]

While the interstice must be induced, it is within cinema itself. There is already a gap in the image, but some images are capable of illuminating that gap. Like the picture plane in painting, the interstice must be both created and revealed, brought into being and allowed to remain.[vi] The interstice is, in effect, the film plane. It is the condition of cinema revealed as such. It is the frame-line, the liminal within the image. It is the in-between. Just as there is an invisible darkness inside of every image that is the pre-condition of viewing, “the darkness, which always alternates coequally with the light, on every motion picture screen,”[vii] so is there a between inside of every image and every cut. Some cuts close this distance (invisible editing) while others announce it. Some cuts conceal this gap, while some shine light on the night of the interstice.
The camera, almost alchemically, converts the world into something other than it is, transforming the evanescent into the material, transubstantiating light, time and space into discrete frames on a strip of celluloid. The projector produces the illusion of movement by eliding the interval between these frames. What Deleuze calls the interstice is a result of the intermittent motion of the film itself; “Between each frame, when the shutter closes over the lens as the strip of film is repositioned, there is a moment of darkness, a fragment of time which is not recorded.”[viii] This absence has what Charles Pierce terms an index, a physical trace of its existence: the frame-line. The frame-line is the avatar of the in-between that is a necessary component of every image in cinema. It signifies an elision, the imperceptible movement of the film from one frame to the next that will take place in darkness. If it is perceptible, the projected film returns to material. When the film jumps in the gate, we suddenly see it naked, vertical streaks replacing the motion the projector had only recently restored to the world. The projector has lost its loop and is no longer capable of sewing frames together into the fabric of time and space.
In Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, we are treated to this spectacle, and the effect is, at first, quite unnerving. The illusion (of an anti-illusion) lasts long enough, however, that we can appreciate seeing a strip of film in this new light. In fact, the magic of Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son is its ability to oscillate between the material and representational aspects of cinema. In wrenching rhythms reminiscent of Charles Mingus or Thelonius Monk,[ix] we shift from smooth spectacle to stuttering substance. Through almost every conceivable means, we become aware of the two-dimensionality of both the picture plane and the film plane.[x] The motion of film from one frame to the next could be said to be the subject of Jacobs’ obsessive investigation:
Nothing has been actually slowed down, we’re just finding more time in that time. There’s much more time in that time than we ever imagined, in two frames. 16 or 18 or 24 frames per second, that’s infinite time, and infinite motion is taking place, infinite numbers of events are taking place and this begins to explore that. I’ve never exhausted the time bounded by two frames.[xi]
There is a cut from frame to frame, a deeper cut from image to image, and a still deeper cut between “differentiated” images, a distance between every frame, contiguous or otherwise, without which cinema would cease to be. This distance can be emphasized, or it can be elided, but it can never be erased. Peter Kulbelka calls the cut from frame to frame within a shot “weak articulation” to call attention to the fact that there is the potential for deep cuts between every frame.[xii] According to Kubelka, what we actually experience in the movement from shot to shot is the last frame of one shot meeting the first frame of another. Half of his work, which he calls his “metrical films,” makes explicit use of this principle. In order to achieve what Deleuze refers to as the interstice, however, Kubelka must use shots,[xiii] for the interstice is not purely graphic. It is also metaphoric, or more accurately, it is visual thinking that elides metaphors through direct association.
For this reason, we could also say that Julie Murray’s films create interstices, although of a very different character. Murray’s films create interstices by a strange method: visual rhyme. By juxtaposing two images that share a single characteristic¾color, texture, shape, motion or even number¾she actually illuminates everything that is different between them. As opposed to Godard’s image that is the product of “two realities that are distant and true,” Murray creates an arbitrary relationship that reveals the deep differences between two images. Cutting from a map to a butterfly, we notice certain repeated patterns between the two. Maps and butterflies are made to kiss; they are made to share a point of contact, but only a point. They remain apart. In fact, like similar poles of magnets, they are impossible to bring together.[xiv]The chain of images continues and soon our associations and dissociations become stranger and stranger as we attempt to reconcile each new “differentiated” pair. This soon becomes a chain of alienation in which each thing is connected and yet everything seems out of place. Murray’s films reveal the arbitrariness of metaphor, yet they elevate everything to the plane of metaphor. They illuminate the fact that the relationships produced by consciousness can be arbitrary, yet her work is nothing but consciousness, a chain of images as stream of consciousness.
Both Murray and Kubelka edit their sound with as much dexterity and complexity as their picture. Sounds can rhyme, not only with each other, but with the diegetic sound that is implied by an image. In Unsere Afrikareise, we see a crocodile violently splashing while we hear the sound of a tape recording that speeds up as the machine shuts off. The effect is stunning because the sound clearly does not emanate from the image, yet it harmonizes with it. Both synchronous and non-diegetic, it has affinity with the image, but refuses to join it. Here again, an interstice is introduced. There is a space between sound and image where thought is possible. In effect, this particular strain of editing allows one to hear and see multiply, communicating simultaneously with multiple planes of consciousness as images and sounds proliferate connections, forming webs of association that reach in several directions at once, streams of consciousness running concurrently, only at times confluently.[xv]
Ultimately, this is what distinguishes Murray’s and Kubelka’s montage from that of Sergei Eisenstein. Instead of positing dialectics, they spin webs, rhizomes. Deleuze:

If Eisenstein is a dialectician, it is because he conceives of the violence of the shock in the form of opposition and the thought of the whole in the form of opposition overcome, or of the transformation of opposites: ‘From the shock of two factors a concept is born’… he thinks that any other conception weakens the shock and leaves thought optional.[xvi]

But in both Murray and Kubelka the lack of dialectics doesn’t leave thought optional; it makes it multiply.
II

In the past, I believed that invisible editing was not just aesthetically outmoded, but morally reprehensible. The classical continuity system, for me, signified filmmakers’ attitudes of superiority to their audience. Refusing to reveal the mechanism behind the magic, these filmmakers were like the magician in the Wizard of Oz, charlatans content to lord it over their audiences with little more than smoke and mirrors. I believed that films utilizing the techniques of classical continuity editing were essentially endless parades of dumb tricks, celluloid legerdemain fit for Vaudeville, not art. If cinema aspired to more than box-office receipts, I believed it first had to pass through the rigors of modernism, revealing itself as a medium. If painting was modern because it refused to deny the picture plane, cinema had to acknowledge the film plane. To elide its inherent fissures was to assure its provincial status in the world of art.
In fact, I believed cinema was inherently modern, that it had been corrupted by capitalism and that the symptom of its money-disease was narrative. The critic in Federico Fellini’s chastises the protagonist’s film as proof that cinema is fifty years behind all the other arts. In fact, cinema, a mechanical medium demanded by and of modernity, was born ahead of the other arts. The Lumieres’ actualities, far from regressively realist, are post-impressionist, oscillating between representation and abstractiondocumentation and fabricationeliciting reality as well as performance. When I learned that they often remade certain actualities after printing the original negative into oblivion, I was convinced of their visionary understanding of the mechanical multiplication of images. It would be another sixty years before the ontological implications of mechanical reproduction would become both the subject and form of Andy Warhol’s embodiment of the all-surface, all-over explosion of images resulting in a “plastic inevitable:” the machine-man’s camera-eye-consciousness.[xvii]
But, proto-post-modernist projects such as the Lumieres’ Warholian camera rolls had been abandoned for the cheap thrills of chase scenes. In short, I thought that cinema was led astray by D. W. Griffith, who perfected and proselytized the new religion of invisible editing and forever turned the cinema away from an exploration of time to an exploitation of it. Cross-cutting induced suspense, I thought, did not study time; it abused it.
Thanks to the wisdom and patience of my teachers, Deleuze’s two books on cinema and the syncopated wit of J. Hoberman, I no longer think of the continuity system as evil incarnate. Now I appreciate and agree with the analysis that Deleuze offers. His achronological narrative[xviii] proposes a transition from movement-image to time-image, from a cinema of the One to a cinema of the AND, the between, the plus.[xix]
For Deleuze, the world-crisis of World War II produces an analogous crisis in cinema. No longer can films assert that a situation can be changed by the action it demands of an individual. Instead, it is replaced by a cinema that revolves around seers and their visions. The new cinema is an episodic, circling cinema of walkers, wanderers and their experiences as opposed to a straight-line cinema of actors and actions. It is a nomad cinema, not an industrial one. Instead of arrows (consequences, this leads to this) we get pluses (this and this and this and…).
But, the plus is not simply an addition; it is a meditation on the possibility of addition. Not just “this and this” but “what is this and?” It is “a method which cinema must ponder at the same time as it uses it.”[xx] The continuity system of the action image creates coherencies, heals cuts and salves disruptions whereas the interstice of the time image creates spaces; it opens the cut to reveal its depth.[xxi] The interstice is a suspension, a hovering between, a falling from one image to another, a leap.
                      This is clearly illustrated in the “Shake A Hand” sequence of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. First, there is a leap from the story to a tangential micro-narrativeor is it an actuality? This special type of interruption will recur throughout Killer of Sheep. There is an image of children leaping between two buildings, filmed from below. We cannot see any part of their actions besides their leap, their suspension in air. There is only the leap, the gap, the dance with gravity. On the soundtrack we hear, “Shake a Hand,” sung by Faye Adams. Its lyrics might be Killer of Sheep’s credo: Just leave it to me/ Don’t ever be ashamed/ Just give me a chance/ I’ll take care of everything.// Your troubles I’ll share./ Let me know and I’ll be there./ I’ll take care of you./ Anyplace and anywhere. Her voice is like crying, and rhymes with what might be a privileged moment in the film, where the difference between make-believe and actuality is blurriest. The cracks in her singing and the strength in her voice both reinforce and oppose the tears of a child that we see. Multiple leaps between sound and image. That is, they both leap multiply. The leap is not unidirectional, not even in time. For this scene foreshadows another crying child, whom we will meet in only a few more shots, while at the same time it references the very beginning of the film.


A leap between the image and the music, and a further leap between the documentary quality of the children’s play and the melodramatic action that follows: a man bounds down a staircase with exaggerated movements, running and hiding from a woman aiming a gun at him. Eventually, the protagonist appears, uniting the fragmented spaces we have been hastily assembling in our minds, a final leap, or fall, from the micro-narrative to the main story, or rather, from one plateau to another. For, in truth, there is no grand narrative in Killer of Sheep, but rather a succession of stories unified by characters and concerns. It is a record of people and places more than actions. Like all cinema of the AND, it has incidents, but not events. This is not a landscape that can be changed by a single action or a single actor. Instead it must be seen, experienced. Not so much diagnosed as understood. It is a reflection, a record that forms a consciousness at the same time that it describes one. Therefore, it leaps between stories as well as images.


This stasis that is time itself.




[i] “In King Lear (Godard, 1987), for instance, Professor Pluggy, the slapstick character he portrays, states, ‘The image is a pure creation of the soul. It cannot be born of a comparison but of a reconciliation of two realities that are more or less far apart. The more the connections between these two realities are distant and true the stronger they need to be.’ Professor Pluggy’s words echo those of Pierre Reverdy, who, writing in the second decade of the twentieth century, had analysed the cinema in much the same terms.” Hayes, Kevin. 2004. The body and the book in Contempt. Studies in European Cinema. 1 (1): 31-41. (2 May 2007).
[ii] Godard, Jean-Luc. Notre Musique. France. 2004. 35mm.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985. p.180
[v] Ibid., pp. 179-80
[vi] Hans Hoffmann: “The picture must always be complete. At the same time, you have to know when it is finished.” as quoted in a lecture by Ken Jacobs attended by the author.
[vii] Andersen, Thom. Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer. United States. 1975. 16mm. also quoted in Doane, Mary Ann. The Emergence of Cinematic Time. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002. p. 202
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] J. Hoberman uses almost the exact same description—Monk-like rhythms, impressionist oscillation between representation and reality—for Oscar Micheaux in his article “Bad Movies” (reproduced in Vulgar Modernism). Indeed, there are many instructive affinities between the two filmmakers. Perhaps Michaeux is the missing filmmaker behind Jacobs’s Perfect Film (a brilliant piece of trash)?
[x] “No movement. No depth. No artifice. The sacred.” Godard, op. cit.
[xi]Jacobs, Ken and Flo. Interview by Tom Gunning and David Schwartz. Films That Tell Time, A Ken Jacobs Retrospective. American Museum of the Moving Image. 10 and 11 August, 1989. 
[xii] Sitney, P. Adams. The Graphic Cinema: European Perspectives. Visionary Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. pp. 298-9.
[xiii] Kubelka’s greatest achievement in creating interstices is Unsere Afrikareise. Interstices abound, between every shot, between every sound and every image, even to the point of there being multiple interstices articulated at once.  
[xiv] And yet we cannot help but think them together. What if we decide to think of butterfly wings as animal skins? What if we decide to think of animal skins as maps? Julie Murray proposes the following in her description of the film:
Hidden among the pounding of animal hides,/ 
All tamed into maps, their shapes
/ Explicit replicate butterfly wings,/ lie the motives of Lír./ 
The king who paid improper attention to his children.// From that first fascination/
And it’s lascivious gaze,/
Came the gorged desire for substance,/
Among the skins,/
Nets, shadows and milk bottles/
Pried from the stomachs of metal fish,/
Steam, smoke and things that won’t stay,/
Speared, dangled, measured, divined./
All dreamed through wallpaper,
Or dowsed from something they drowned in long ago. [Murray, Julie. Deliquium. 2003. (2 May 2007).].
[xv] This—that one of the projects of modernism is to speak to the multiple planes of consciousness simultaneously—was pointed out to me by Ken Jacobs while he was lecturing on Pablo Picasso’s cubist collages.
[xvi] Deleuze. op cit. p. 158
[xvii] Educated in chaos, his maxims are headlines and his eyes are headlights. Note Warhol’s long lasting affinity for newspapers: from early pencil-on-paper reductionism, lending an element of the abstract to the front page, to mechanically manufactured (literally: “hand-made”) repetitions of tabloid imagery that renders the concrete abstract through sheer repetition. Warhol observes—and then reproduces by other, illuminating means—what already exists. It is a performance where he is a conduit, a radio/tv tower intercepting every kind of communication and spitting them all back out, sometimes as a stream-of-consciousness, sometimes as a skipping record, sometimes as a mechanical mirror. Before Warhol, Weegee. In Weegee’s reportage, there is already an element of the abstract (“woodcut-like starkness meant to arrest the eye of a rushing pedestrian at a dozen paces”(Hoberman)) and the self-reflexive (note his incorporation of headlines into his own work as well as his crowd studies). His obsessive themes already suggest the endlessly repeatable. For more on Weegee and tabloid lyricism in general, see Hoberman, J. Three American Abstract Sensationalists. In Vulgar Moderism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991. pp. 24-7
[xviii] For Deleuze, achronology is an important aspect of the cinema of the time-image, but here I mean to suggest that his narrative of cinema itself is achronological. The crisis of the action-image that he describes lasts into the 70’s in America and arguably continues today, even though the cinema of the time-image began in the 40’s. The notion that time itself is multiple, running in one direction—forward—but not along a single course, has profound implications for cinema and thought.
[xix]Alpha 60: “Once we know the number one, we believe that we know the number two, because one plus one equals two. We forget that first we must know the meaning of plus.” (Godard, Jean-Luc. Alphaville. France. 1965. 35mm.) And Brian Massumi on the importance of Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: “Nomad thought replaces the closed equation of representation, x = x = not y (I = I = not you) with an open equation: … + y + z + a + … (… + arm + brick + window + …)” (Massumi, Brian. 1987 Translator’s Foreward. In A Thousand Plateaus, p. xiii. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.)
[xx] Deleuze, op. cit., p. 179
[xxi] This is most clearly illustrated Godard’s lecture on shot/counter-shot in Notre Musique.

1/10/14

x

8/15/13

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.

5/14/12

Pavement

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.

12/12/11

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.

9/7/11

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.

8/1/11

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.

4/4/11

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.

3/19/11

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.

12/6/10

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.